Ploughing a lonely furrow for GM crops
The Irishman heading GM trials in the UK says genetically modified foods can and will play a key role in feeding the world, writes MARK HENNESSY,London Editor
MAURICE MOLONEY spent his early years in the 1950s living upstairs over a sweet-shop in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, where his parents sold confectionery to locals as they headed to the cinema.
By age five, Moloney had moved to Lancashire, where his father, John, had found work in the still-thriving Preston mills. “I did have a trouble a’mill accent for a significant proportion of my life,” he says.
Today, Moloney heads Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, the world’s oldest agricultural research station, which was set up in 1843 by the man who produced the first commercially made fertilizers.
Rothamsted has been in the news because of the GM trials it is undertaking on a strain of spring wheat genetically modified to resist aphids, small bugs that feed by sucking sap from plants.
The tests are not popular with opponents, but the opposition which ended GM trials in the 1990s – including such unusual allies as the Daily Mail and Greenpeace – seems to have weakened considerably.
Last month, more than 100 protesters who had threatened to rip up the crops, were kept away by police, though, in truth, the protesters made few if any real efforts to cause damage.
Moloney, a studious, quietly spoken man, makes an unlikely hate figure, but he is that for some anti-GM campaigners – both because of his role in Rothamsted and earlier work in Canada.
There, he helped to develop canola, a GM variant of rapeseed, resistant to the Round-Up pesticide, and it is work of which he remains proud today.
“The soil was getting really dry and dusty. The top-soil was blowing away. In fact, when I moved to Canada there was a big question about whether we were heading for another Dustbowl.”
In spring, fields filled with massive clouds of top-soil. “If you talk to the prairie farmers they will say that they have got better yields, but what they have really saved is the quality of the soil,” he says.
Educated in Preston College by the Jesuits, Moloney went to Imperial College to study chemistry: “During my under-graduate degree we were taught by three Nobel Prize winners.”
Later he worked for ICI developing plant growth regulators, before doing a PhD in plant biochemistry and later study in Seattle in the US and Switzerland.
His plans to return to Britain were stymied by the education cuts of the Thatcher era: “There really wasn’t anything. That was probably the worst time to be looking for a university job.”