Rothamsted pushing for public debate on GM wheat trial

Scientists at Rothamsted Research who invited anti-GM campaigners to take part in a debate on the GM wheat trial fear their words may have fallen on deaf ears.

Activists from the protest group Take the Flour Back are planning “mass action against genetically modified wheat” at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, on 27 May.

They have warned that they will tear up the GM wheat trial unless it is halted at Rothamsted. The scheduled protest follows high-profile incidents in Germany and Australia last year in which GM wheat experiments were torn up.

Last month scientists at Rothamsted offered to meet and talk to the protesters at a neutral venue to debate their GM wheat trial.

But leaders from Rothamsted say they have not had any official response back from Take the Flour Back.

“We have offered them dialogue. We have offered them a public debate,” said Maurice Moloney, director and chief executive of Rothamsted Research.

“We came up with the idea of hosting a debate with a neutral chair. A nationally-known journalist could act as a chair, but we haven’t heard a word back.”

On 2 May, Take the Flour Back published an open letter on its website responding to the invitation from Rothamsted for a debate.

In the letter, the group said it would “welcome the opportunity to engage with you in a public debate over the forthcoming weeks”.

The letter also stated: “To this end we invite you to join us on neutral ground, with a neutral chairperson, for an open exchange of opinions and concerns”.

But Prof Moloney said Rothamsted was struggling to communicate with Take the Flour Back, and the group was proving to be elusive.

“We don’t know who Take the Flour Back are, or where they are,” he added.

“They always used pseudonyms. When they have appeared on TV, they are not the real names.

“It’s been very difficult to get any communication back. All we can do is offer what we have offered, which is dialogue and communication.”

Scientists at Rothamsted have also made a video appeal last week calling on protesters not to ruin their genetically-modified experimental plots.

Prof Moloney admitted he was concerned about the consequences of direct action by the protesters.

“It’s a lot of work and it would put the work back substantially, but there would be no reason for it (direct action),” he said.

“This is not Monsanto doing a field trial whereby they are going to release a product in two years and everybody will be mad with them. It’s a scientific experiment.”

He added: “Somebody who destroys this trial may as well go back to the Middle Ages and empty the libraries of books so that the general population can’t become knowledgeable or literate – that’s the equivalent of it.”

The GM wheat trial is aiming to see whether wheat engineered to release a pheromone that deters aphids could reduce the need for pesticides.

A spokesman for Take the Flour Back said: “Television producers Newsnight have been in touch with ourselves and Rothamsted and have invited us to take part in a debate on the GM wheat trial on Thursday (17 May).

“As far as I know, a representative from Take the Flour Back has agreed to take part in the studio debate and we are booked in.”

Read exclusively about Prof Moloney’s views on the GM wheat trial, as well as other hot farming topics of discussion, including declining bee populations, food security, future wheat yields and plant genomics only in Farmers Weekly, out Friday, 18 May.

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