U.K. Researchers Plead With Protesters to Leave Plants Alone

Keep out. The grain aphid (Sitobion avenae) is one of the species repelled by the genetically modified wheat.

Rothamsted Research Ltd

Scientists in the United Kingdom are hoping that a direct, impassioned appeal to protesters who have threatened to destroy a field trial of genetically modified wheat later this month might save their research project. In a letter and video message released earlier today, scientists at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden respond to a group called Take the Flour Back, which has said that if the scientists don't remove the plants by 27 May, protesters will do so.

"When you visit us on 27 May we will be available to meet and talk to you," the letter says. "But we must ask you to respect the need to gather knowledge unimpeded. Please do not come to damage and destroy."

The Rothamsted trial is designed to test whether the wheat, which makes a compound that many plants use as a chemical defense, can better withstand aphid attacks in the field. The compound, called (E)-ß-farnesene, is present in hundreds of plant species, such as hops and peppermint. It mimics an aphid alarm pheromone that repels the insects and attracts their predators, including ladybugs and parasitic wasps.

The trial is the first to field-test plants engineered to produce (E)-ß-farnesene. Lab-based tests of the wheat variety showed that it "works spectacularly well," says chemical ecologist John Pickett of Rothamsted Research who is leading the trial.

In their letter, the researchers argue that, if successful, the wheat variety could cut down on the use of insecticides. "We agree that agriculture should seek to work 'with nature rather than against it' … and that motivation underlies our work," they write.

They also call on the activists to not stand in the way of scientific discovery. "You have described genetically modified crops as 'not properly tested'. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained," the letter says. It goes on to compare the planned destruction to "clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain. We remind you that such actions do not have a proud tradition."

Take the Flour Back says the open-air trial risks spreading the wheat's engineered genes to "the local environment and the UK wheat industry." "May 27th is the last weekend action can safely be taken before pollination," the group's Web site says. The trial's researchers counter that buffer zones of barley and non-GM wheat will prevent any pollen from leaving the trial site. (Wheat pollen is heavy, they argue, and not usually spread by wind.) They will also "ensure that suitable measures are in place to keep pigeons and other large birds out of the trial site" since they could theoretically spread seeds or pollen.