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May 01 2012

Come on, kids, let’s destroy the crops!

Good old “activists” – anti-vax activists, pro alt med activists, anti-GM crops activists. Hooray for crop failure and famine!

Scientists working on a new generation of genetically modified crops have sent an open letter to anti-GM protesters pleading with them not to destroy “years of work” by attacking their research plots.

The activist group, Take the Flour Back, has pledged to carry out a “decontamination” at a test site in Hertfordshire, where agricultural researchers are growing the world’s first genetically modified wheat that can repel insect pests by emitting a repellent-smelling substance.

Because…it’s a good thing to have crops eaten by insects?

Scientists said that the suggestion they had used a cow gene “betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality”.

Matt Thomson, from Take the Flour Back, told The Independent yesterday that action against the Rothamsted site would go ahead as planned.

“The concerns that we have are not addressed in this letter,” he said. “The way that Rothamsted have publicised this trial has been patronising. This wheat contains genes that are not naturally occurring.”

The publicity is patronizing, therefore they’re going to trash years of research into how to improve the production of staple food? 

That’s the most revoltingly frivolous thing I’ve seen in awhile.

Sense About Science has a petition you can sign and circulate.

Via Simon Singh at Twitter.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    mr_subjunctive

    This wheat contains genes that are not naturally occurring.

    Since when don’t cows occur naturally?

  2. 2
    anne

    They’s surely be against things like vaccination, too? And penicillin, since that wasn’t what it evolved for…

  3. 3
    MichaelD

    Wait I thought the gene was naturally occurring in cows? So even if its in the wheat its all natural its all good ;p Honestly I’d set up some cameras/ get the police involved. The wheat is probably expensive to make etc so this would be some serious vandalism charges in my mind.

  4. 4
    Brian

    FFS snake venom and death are naturally occurring. What is it with the fetishization of all things natural?

  5. 5
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    Arsenic. Can’t get more natural than an unadorned element.

  6. 6
    Bernard Hurley

    I live quite near Rothamsted. It’s always seemed a nice friendly place. They have various public events there, open days and recitals in the old manor house. I have no doubt there will be police there on the day but the site is awfully difficult to defend. They had problems with people destroying GM rape seed some years ago and they ended up doing the trials off site in local farms. I imagine they will have done this with the wheat trials but that won’t stop some of these idiots destroying things. Most of them couldn’t tell an ear of corn from a chaffinch.

  7. 7
    M can help you with that.

    It seems like just about everyone polarizes into “all use of any GM plants anywhere for any reason is evil” or “GM plants are the wave of the future and saving the world (even if in practice the priorities behind commercialized strains are usually screwed-up and end up doing social and economic damage)”. Of course, people who are concerned with the specific crops that go into production and the context where they’re pushed tend to get shouted down by people who react as if they’d just attacked technology as a whole…

  8. 8
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Snipers.

  9. 9
    Robert B.

    @ M Groesbeck:

    Is there any particular reason you’ve come into this thread swinging at both sides? Do you have reason to believe both sides are wrong in this instance? Is Ophelia or someone in the thread being as foolish in supporting GM crops as the crop-burning activists are in opposing it? Or does the topic just trigger a knee-jerk response: “Oooh, here’s a thread where I can feel superior to everyone!

  10. 10
    dirigible

    “Because…it’s a good thing to have crops eaten by insects?”

    There are Bt resistant insects, and there are Roundup resistant weeds.

    In agriculture, monoculture and monopolies kill people. GM consists of both. Unless GM becomes more biologically and economically diverse opposing its use is not politically irrational.

  11. 11
    Ian MacDougall

    dirigible: “In agriculture, monoculture and monopolies kill people. GM consists of both. Unless GM becomes more biologically and economically diverse opposing its use is not politically irrational.”

    Last time I looked at a wheat plant, it was still capable of sexual reproduction. Therefore it will give rise to genetically diverse progeny. Too diverse, and the crop they make up won’t be worth harvesting.

    Some agricultural and horticultural practices involve narrowing the genetic diversity to the point of monoculture; orchards and vineyards being textbook examples, with fruit being produced by genetically identical cuttings or scions which have been grafted onto genetically diverse (‘wild’) stock.

    But as for mixing up genes from here there and everywhere into the one species, I’m not so sure. My meal tonight for example contained fish, potato, tomato, broccoli and mustard genes, all together on the one plate. After learning about these activists and their revelations, I must say I don’t feel so good right now.

    I hope I am still alive tomorrow morning, but if I am not, I’ll know never to eat such a mixture again.
    ;-)

  12. 12
    Matt Penfold

    In agriculture, monoculture and monopolies kill people. GM consists of both. Unless GM becomes more biologically and economically diverse opposing its use is not politically irrational.

    A little reading would help prevent you from making a fool of yourself.

    The team carrying out the research have stated they are not going to patent their work.

  13. 13
    Torquil Macneil

    “The team carrying out the research have stated they are not going to patent their work.”

    But even if they did, that would only lead to a monopoly in that particular technology and not a monopoly as such.You would think that some of the ‘GM crops cause social/economic/natural disater’ brigade would be able to point to a single example, wouldn’t you?

  14. 14
    Ewan R

    Full disclaimer, as this vaguely touches on what I do, I work for Monsanto in R&D, my comments here are entirely my own opinion and not the opinion of my corporate overlords.

    In agriculture, monoculture and monopolies kill people. GM consists of both.

    Not true in either instance, certainly not true in the first case, not true for a given value of true in the second.

    In the first instance we’re discussing monoculture – there is absolutely no reason to presume that monoculture is necessary in GM, if it were GM wouldn’t be near as succesful as it is – farmers require different varieties based on their broad geographic location and even based on the various quality of the fields in which they will plant (why plant the absolute best hybrid in a field which can’t get the best out of it for instance) – GM traits are introgressed broadly across germplasm such that the existance, or not, of GM has absolutely no bearing on whether the crop is a monoculture or not (to state that corn is a monoculture seems to me utterly ludicrous given that there’s about 25% of the genome which may appear in one variety but not in another) – to state that it is a monoculture supposes that there is a single (or at best a very limited number of) variety (s) which categorically isn’t the case for the bulk of GM crops (I am unsure in terms of alfalfa and sugar beet what the status is, it may be that the GM traits in these crops are only present in a handful of varieties)

    On the monopoly front – sure, most GM traits at present are monopolized by the companies that own them (predominantly Monsanto, but stuff like liberty-link and some of Bayer’s traits also) – but this is by design – the patent system which encourages invention by handing out monopoly on an invention for a set period is, in my opinion a good thing, and the way that GM trait marketing works essentially undermines the idea of monopoly in this area anyway – it is clear that the licensing model adopted by Monsanto for their early traits works best in the seeds and traits marketplace – so while Monsanto traits may appear in upwards of 90% of various seeds Monsanto only “owns” somewhere in the region of 30-40% of the actual seeds being sold (I often hear the quip that Monsanto’s biggest customer is Pioneer, the one company considered their biggest rival in the seeds and traits game – which is likely true given that Pioneer (at least last I saw, may have changed this year) have equal or greater market share in seed sales. So not really a monopoly, perhaps an oligopoly or whatever one may call it.

    Again though, not something that has to be part and parcel of GM, something infact which has the potential to go away relatively quickly should, oh, I dunno, people stop destroying the work of academics (is it surprising that only big business gets into the trait market when the small academic labs trying to work on these things get their field trials destroyed) and make some sort of regulatory framework in which the little guy has some sort of a chance (with the regulatory burden on a single trait estimated in the $100-$120M range last I checked this still remains a massive hurdle, and one which plays right into the hands of big business as far as I can tell)

  15. 15
    scotlyn

    I would like to say at the outset, that the tactics of GM opponents described above are unconsionably stupid and counter-productive and I utterly repudiate them. However I do have serious reservations about much of the current GM research effort.

    I believe dirigible’s use of the word “monoculture” was not referring to lack of genetic diversity within a crop, so much as a lack of biodiversity that results when a single crop is planted over a large area, necessitating the killing of all other plants (weeds) and small animals (vermin) within the boundaries of its plantation, and diminishing the diversity of insect life and of soil-based microbial life both within, and beyond such boundaries.

    Monocultures (not specifically GM monocultures, but them too) seriously threaten biodiversity and deplete fertile, microbe-rich, soil, and therefore lack any inbuilt long-term sustainability. The current monocrop model, practiced in the production of all grain crops, is only temporarily sustained by the ready availability of fossil fuels, both for energy inputs and to artificially boost fertility of a biologically inert soil. The extreme reliance on fossil fuel inputs, together with the accompanying destruction of fertile soil, which is itself an important carbon sink, monocultures greatly amplify our carbon footprint. Such biodiversity-attacking, soil-depleting, carbon-producing monocultures will quickly become non-viable in a post-peak oil world.

    GM, as it is currently practiced, is mainly aimed at propping up the monoculture model, and as such, and I say this as a small, soil-enhancing farmer myself, is aimed down a rabbit-hole.

    As a small farmer, and as a citizen, and as a poor person, I also have enormous concerns when a private corporation trumpets the ability of a technology that they fully intend to patent and profit from to “feed the world.” To me, the evidence is all the other way. The more a corporation, or any private, publicly unaccountable entity, gains control of the food supply (and there is no tighter control than owning its genetic fingerprint), the greater the risk to the food security of the poor.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    The Rothamsted research is publicly funded.

    http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/Content.php?Section=AphidWheat

    Scientists at Rothamsted, funded by the UK Government through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research (BBSRC) have been seeking novel ecological solutions to overcome this problem in wheat. One approach has been to use an odour, or alarm pheromone, which aphids produce to alert one another to danger. This odour, (E)-β-farnesene, is also produced by some plants as a natural defence mechanism and not only repels aphids but also attracts the natural enemies of aphids, e.g. ladybirds. Our scientists are using biotechnological tools to genetically engineer a wheat plant which produces high levels of this aphid repelling odour, which could help promote sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture.

    This work is sponsored by the BBSRC and not a commercial organisation, nor for commercial gain. It forms part of a wider scientific strategy for Rothamsted Research to meet the challenge of increasing food and energy production in a more environmentally sustainable way.

  17. 17
    pipenta

    It is not necessarily a bad thing to have some of your crops eaten by insects. It is a matter of how many of your crops are eaten. I’m not comfortable when these new technologies, which are developed for corporate profit, are draped in the banner of humanitarianism and shielded from criticism under the banner of SCIENCE. There are plenty of scientists who are not convinced that Monsanto & Co’s GMO approach is a good solution. And there are not a few entomologists who gave a rueful chuckle when it becomes known that the target beasties have evolved a resistance to whatever GMO project was supposed to save the world. (Or at least the quarterly projections for increased shareholder value.)

    This roundup ready crap is not going to work anyway, not down the road. And even if it does, (Pardon my chortling.) you are just exporting the problem of world hunger downstream in time. Every time in history that humans have developed a new technology to produce food, the population has increased. (And the culture has changed. I have anthropologist friends who say that agriculture was the worst thing that ever happened to humans. I don’t agree, but they are scientists too.) And when the population goes up, you have more mouths to feed. Eventually you reach a point where you cannot produce enough food. The solution is population control, not this constant looking to agricultural technology to save us all. And population control might not, for cultural and political reasons, be all that feasible.

    But you can’t expect agriculture tech to solve this problem. The math is BAD. It is in no way comparable to the vaccine situation. And a relentless pursuit of magic bullet farming solutions is not good science, it’s practically superstition. Only instead of a bamboo C47, you are bowing to a scarecrow with a clipboard and a lab coat. Oy. And the man behind the curtain here just wants the money, ALL OF IT.

  18. 18
    Matt Penfold

    It is not necessarily a bad thing to have some of your crops eaten by insects. It is a matter of how many of your crops are eaten. I’m not comfortable when these new technologies, which are developed for corporate profit, are draped in the banner of humanitarianism and shielded from criticism under the banner of SCIENCE. There are plenty of scientists who are not convinced that Monsanto & Co’s GMO approach is a good solution. And there are not a few entomologists who gave a rueful chuckle when it becomes known that the target beasties have evolved a resistance to whatever GMO project was supposed to save the world. (Or at least the quarterly projections for increased shareholder value.)

    Why bother to leave a comment if you cannot be bothered to read what others have said ?

    Please read the post by Ophelia above yours, and explain what part of it you do not understand ?

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    pipenta – so you would like to be living in a place that depended on local agriculture when everything for hundreds of miles around got devoured by insects, would you?

    I haven’t noticed anyone claiming that GM wheat is a Magic Bullet that renders everything else worthless – but agreeing that improved crop yields don’t solve all problems doesn’t equal “it’s a great idea to vandalize research into improved crop yields.”

    In other words even if your vague generalities are right, they don’t demonstrate that improved crop yields should be prevented.

  20. 20
    M can help you with that.

    @ Robert B. –

    I was (inappropriately) reacting to arguments elsewhere rather than anything said here. This case in particular — publicly-accessible research, no plans for patents, designed to work in concert with similarly-publicly-accessible pest-control methods like aphid predators instead of pushing a patented pesticide only applicable to certain farming patterns — sounds like it’s GM done right, as people here have pointed out.

    Even if this sort of attack on research crops were aimed at the sort of GM research that’s used in ways that hurt both biological and socioeconomic sustainability, it would be obnoxious, counterproductive, and ultimately chilling in terms of good tech as well as bad. When it’s a poorly-conceived attack on entirely the wrong target, that’s even worse.

  21. 21
    Ewan R

    It is not necessarily a bad thing to have some of your crops eaten by insects.

    So long as you’re not interested in having a livelihood from your farm I guess. Even in situations where it ain’t insects devouring everything for hundreds of miles but is just say a 10% loss of productivity that’s still pretty significant (ask yourself whether or not you’re willing to take a 10% drop in pay to feed a few thousand insects)

    I’m not comfortable when these new technologies, which are developed for corporate profit,

    So you are comfortable with the technology under discussion then which is being developed by academics and not for corporate profit?

    and shielded from criticism under the banner of SCIENCE.

    Science is no shield to criticism, science is a shield against unwarranted criticism – if the criticism is warranted the science will back it, that’s how science works.

    And there are not a few entomologists who gave a rueful chuckle when it becomes known that the target beasties have evolved a resistance to whatever GMO project was supposed to save the world

    Nobody has claimed any given insect resistance trait was going to save the world. The evidence strongly suggests that such traits have made massive positive impacts on incomes of farmers using them. I’d imagine those chuckling at the rise of resistance are more likely to be the sellers of insecticides rather than entomologists (who may chuckle at the hubris of anyone who suggested resistance wouldn’t ever evolve, or who may decry the lack of good IPR utilized by some in terms of deploying refuge to stave off resistance) – one positive aspect however is that this isn’t a static solution – as resistances arise one simply has to keep up and deploy the next generation of control.

    This roundup ready crap is not going to work anyway, not down the road

    Depends how far down the road you’re talking, and what is done in the interim – again, new herbicide tolerances are in the pipeline, and with what has been leared from roundup ready there remains the capacity to stave off resistance through herbicide rotation, utilization of mixed chemistries etc – roundup-ready, despite the appearance of some populations of resistant weeds, remains vastly succesful.

    The solution is population control, not this constant looking to agricultural technology to save us all. And population control might not, for cultural and political reasons, be all that feasible.

    So we let ‘em starve then? Excuse me if I don’t fall over myself endorsing that approach.

    Every time in history that humans have developed a new technology to produce food

    Odd that some European nations are experiencing negative growth and the “developed world” as a whole has experienced a decline in the rate of increase right at the time when GM crops were introduced. It’s almost as if this doesn’t necessarily apply universally.

    And a relentless pursuit of magic bullet farming solutions is not good science

    Nobody is suggesting any of these technologies is a magic bullet. They’re improvements on the current system, better methods of doing things, methods which won’t mean a thing if we simply rest on our laurels after developing them.

  22. 22
    Robert B.

    @ M Groesbeck:

    A very reasonable response! Thumbs up for admitting error; your underlying position seems sound to me.

  1. 23
    Come on, kids, let’s destroy the crops! | Secular News Daily

    [...] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels has found a petition for us. But first, a little backstory: Good old “activists” – anti-vax [...]

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