Police stop protesters raiding GM wheat fields


A UK protest against genetically modified wheat drew people from both sides of the debate, writes MARK HENNESSY

IN ROTHAMSTED Park in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, yesterday, hundreds gathered under an oak tree to protest about genetically modified wheat growing in the fields nearby.

Between them and the fields lay a cordon of Hertfordshire constabulary, while hundreds more were on duty around the Rothamsted Research Centre over the hill.

In the summer sun, the mood was jovial, partly because of the addition of Faucheurs Volontaires d’OGM activists who had travelled from France for the much-heralded protests.

But first they sang in praise of the Luddites, the early 19th century group of English textile workers who destroyed newly invented spinning looms.

The English organisers, Take the Flour Back, had pledged to destroy the crop of spring wheat that is now growing behind 12ft fences, too far away to be seen yesterday.

However, they abandoned the plan in the face of the police presence and the local council’s decision to impose a trespass ban.

Following a decade when GM looked to be in retreat, opponents now fear its return, especially following last week’s EU decision in favour of Monsanto-run maize trials in France.

The trials at Rothamsted of an aphid-resistant strain of spring wheat were approved last September by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“What will the aphids eat? Where will they go? Yes; to the next farmer’s land, and then they’ll tell us that we need a new and improved version of the plant,” Theo Simon told the crowd.

Taking the microphone, Lincolnshire cereal farmer Peter Lundren declared: “I am supposed to be the person who should be pleased that this test is going forward.

“But this is both irresponsible and irrelevant,” he declared, saying that he manages the threat of aphids with insecticides, or natural predators such as ladybirds.

Standing in the noon-day sun, Loiana David from Northampton said she had come across news of the Rothamsted protest as she researched GM rice.

For years, Davis was a vegan, but said that she had to abandon eating soya and corn when she was struck by an allergy – one that she blames on the increase in GM strains of the crops.

“Now I have to eat meat and fish to get the protein I need,” she said.

Conventional agricultural research institutes in the UK are being closed, argued Simon, while Rothamsted had little trouble getting nearly £2 million to fund its GM trials.

“We have been given a very bad press as a bunch of Nazi book-burners,” he complained, sighing that even the left-leaning Guardian could no longer be relied upon.

On the margins of the group, the now-retired scientist Dr Vic Shorrocks struggled to hide his irritation as he heard Simon’s denunciations.

“They are so ignorant,” he said, “Wheat is self-pollinating; it isn’t a case that pollen will be flying everywhere.”

Generations of seeds have been successfully mutated by irradiation, or chemicals, he said.

“But if you told anybody nowadays that they were eating food from irradiated seeds, they would run a mile.”

Faced with the police warnings, the protesters’ ambitions for a field invasion, bar one or two desultorily attempts, were abandoned. Instead, they linked arms and marched to the police lines.

“We wanted to do the responsible thing and remove the threat of GM contamination. Sadly it wasn’t possible to do that effectively today,” said one of the group, Kate Bell.

Pleased that the invasion had not gone ahead, Rothamsted Research’s director Prof Maurice Moloney, who comes from Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan, said years of work could have been ruined.

The risks of cross-pollination were minuscule, he said. “We have no idea who is advising them scientifically, because [they are] absolutely incorrect.”

Several hundred yards away, members of the pro-scientific lobby group, Sense About Science, stood watching.

One of its number, Mark Lynas, who once protested about GM trials and is now regarded by his former comrades as an apostate, said: “I think today is a turning point. Today is the first day that people have turned out to defend the scientific method and defend the age of reason from the ideologically bonkers wing of the environmental movement.”