19 June 1998

Destroyed GM crop posed no big threat

GENETICALLY-MODIFIED wheat plants destroyed on the eve of the Cereals event were better understood than most conventional cereal varieties and posed no significant threat to consumers or the environment, say scientists responsible for the work.

"By destroying these plants you have destroyed the very basis for the debate," Ben Miflin, director of IACR Rothamsted told protesters. "We have every interest in pushing the debate forward in an open and constructive way."

He went on to criticise the campaigners tactics. Abandoning GM technologies due to unsound science will lead to social division, environmental damage and a failure to feed the worlds booming population, he warned.

"We must be very careful before we set aside these techniques. We are facing a risk due to the way the facts are being distorted."

Evidence has also emerged that those responsible for the damage took parts of the plants from the site. Scissors were found on the plot and the ears appeared to be missing.

"It is rather concerning to find that a group which purports to be concerned about genetic release to the environment seems to have removed the ears, even though they were immature," says IACR researcher Paul Lazzeri.

The poor quality Australian spring wheat on display was modified using genes from strong floured US variety Hope. That showed breadmaking quality could be improved using GM techniques, notes Dr Lazzeri.

Furthermore, the resulting variety is now better understood than varieties from conventional crossing. "We are dealing with one transformation event here, involving one gene, which we have characterised. Conventional breeding crosses two varieties with 30,000 genes each. You really do not know what will happen when you do that.

"We can now deal with just the gene of interest and we can pare that down so there is very little genetic material either side of the gene. It is very difficult to see how that could change other characteristics to create the super-weeds the campaigners talk about." &#42

Paul Lazzeri is worried that protesters may have removed transgenic wheat ears from the display.