Wheat or Chaff? More Answers Required
The trial is planned to run over 2 years, and is costing over £1.2 million.
"The crop was harvested in late August, so half of the experiment is done," said a spokesman for Rothamsted Research, which is conducting the trial.
"We are pleased that we have got to this stage and the crop was not destroyed, but it will not be considered a success until we get all the data next year."
In one of the hardest years for arable farmers in living memory, one wonders if the results from this trial will be truly representative of a ‘normal’ year. It is well documented that insects have struggled this year; however, Rothamsted said this season's wet weather could be an advantage in the long term.
"The weather has been variable this year, so if it improves next year we will have some robust data about how the crop performs in contrasting growing seasons," said the spokesman. Although if the weather is completely different next growing season (and for the sake of the rest of the farming community- we have to hope it is) surely the results will be non-comparable to this year. How then can the results be reliable?
Harvest in but unanswered questions still in the field.
There was early confusion as to why wheat would be used for trial. Even Guy Smith, a conventional famer and an old proponent of GM was quoted saying “why are we spending a large chunk of our finite R&D budget on a crop no one wants to buy? Even in the USA, GM wheat has stalled because of consumer resistance. Can anyone think of another example of money being spent on the development of a crop that has no market prospects?.....For some reason that escapes me, we are looking at GM wheat. It is as if the R&D committee got drunk before the meeting.”
So this is the first question that needs an answer, and to provide it, a key scientist in the trial, Toby Bruce, took part in a question and answer session that Farmers Weekly Interactive hosted, and was asked; ‘why use wheat at all and not another crop?’ to which the response was: “Wheat is not a smelly plant. To get the aphid repellent effect the smell needs to be quite pure.” So this is their reason for using wheat apparently.
That seems quite straight forward. But when asked why they chose to grow spring wheat and not winter wheat (winter wheat typically suffers more from aphid infestation than spring wheat due to earlier sowing) the answers are variable and contradictory.
Honesty is the best policy
It is almost as if the scientist forgot to synchronise their alibis. Here are the reasons given so far for growing spring wheat:
1) “Winter wheat would have been a better model for UK agriculture but this is an early stage experiment and 'spring type' wheat provides a more efficient experimental system to test our hypothesis, most notably it is easier to transform, has no vernalisation requirement and therefore the experiment can be conducted in a shorter time frame. Vernalisation is a process where seeds are subjected to low temperatures in order to speed up plant development and flowering. Our 'spring type' wheat, Cadenza, also has good frost-tolerance which will protect the experiment from our unpredictable UK weather.” Rothamsted website.
There are several reasons hidden in there, firstly, spring wheat is a more efficient experimental system, i.e. it costs less money to do the experiment on because it doesn’t take as long, time equals money. This is fair enough.
It then goes on to say that spring wheat is easier to transform genetically, that is a reason for choosing it. This is a little strange. The variety they have used is Candenza. Candenza can be sown as a spring OR a winter wheat, so if it’s the same, why is it easier to do on spring wheat? It backs this argument up by saying that it doesn’t require vernalising to get the seed started (subjected to cold temperatures) but in the next breath states that their variety has good frost tolerance, so it could have been subjected to low temperatures as a winter wheat.
2) On BBC Newsnight on 17th May, Professor Pickett was asked if the real motivation behind the use of spring wheat was because that is the predominant type of wheat grown in the US.
A flustered Pickett gave the response that there “was no conspiracy here” and that “although winter wheat would be a better model for testing, we’re using spring wheat because the trial would be a lot more expensive initially to do on winter wheat.”
3) Michael Maloney, director of Rothamsted, was questioned by the BBC on the day of the protests about why they had chosen spring wheat: “Rothamsted deliberately chose spring wheat because of its rarity. It means there is even less chance of cross pollination with other varieties of wheat maturing at different times of the year, and any technology that works in spring wheat can be transferred to other wheat varieties.”
4) Rothamsted scientists were also quoted earlier on, before the trial started, that the limitations of timing and budget imposed by the BBSRC meant that the only option was spring wheat.
5) Back to the Farmer’s Weekly debate, and Toby Bruce was asked again the question, ‘Why spring wheat?’ by FWi’s Philip Case. Again he stated “the spring wheat variety was easier to do the transformation with. It can also be grown as winter wheat and the trait could be crossed into winter wheat at a later date.” No mention of rarity there.
Why is spring wheat easier to transform if the strain can be grown as either as a winter or a spring variety? Plus the scientists assure us that there is absolutely no risk of cross pollination because as Dr Toby Bruce of Rothamsted says; “wheat is a self-pollinating plant. Wheat pollen is too heavy to travel far on the wind and lives for only a few hours so cross pollination is almost impossible.” So why select a crop for varying pollination times- is the risk of contamination is as ‘impossible’ as they make out?
These aren’t the only discrepancies however. The scientists claim that the reasons for doing this trial are for academic reasons, for the advancement of knowledge. There are a few slip ups in this too.
Pickett again, he obviously doesn’t do well under pressure, as he is quoted as saying to Farmers Weekly; “Companies are very interested and they are keeping a watching brief as they always do in all research," and then added: "We have all been wined and dined very heavily by academic groups in the USA wanting to see what new things we have got in mind for GM." Well this doesn’t exactly sound as if he doesn’t have a market in mind for his spring wheat. Since then of course he has said that there is “no commercial interest in this trial”.
He has also said:
“This is of global, great significance and it could be that we generate very good intellectual property for commercial development in the interests of the UK and European agriculture and business.”
"That's the long term plan, but this trial has no commercial connection whatsoever." However it seems that scientists at Rothamsted are also working with colleagues in Brazil, and China soon; who are trialling (E) beta-farnesene (EBF) to repel aphids in cotton and soya crops.
It is alarming that a PR campaign that leads everyone to believe that these scientists are the ‘new age’ of scientists who engage with the public and are wholly transparent about their work and motivations, are actually not being transparent at all. Their statements are muddled and conflicting, and in each case the quick diversion from the question of ‘why?’ shows how uncomfortable they are with probing questions into the real motivations behind this trial.
We await the results with interest.