Is this the UK comeback of GM?


This year will see the first-ever open-field trial of GM wheat, conducted by the Rothamsted Research centre in Hertfordshire. The trial is the first open trial of synthetic genes for a commercial crop in the UK. And while it represents a new phase in the struggle between food democracy and corporate control of food in the UK, corporate interests in GM crops continue to grow worldwide. According to the 2011 Synthesis Report, the real reason why the industry continues to promote GMOs is due to the patenting of seeds, with seed companies continuing to flourish and extend their monopoly over seeds through patents, mergers and cross-licensing arrangements. The report maps the numerous companies involved in the seed industry.

New trial

In March this year, Rothamsted Research planted a new GM wheat trial designed to repel aphids. It contains genes for antibiotic resistance and an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’. The trial site is under 24-hour security, partly in anticipation that anti-GM activists may attempt to destroy the crop. The laboratory work and trial will cost £800,000, with £120,000 to be spent on security. Funding is being provided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which has provided over £1.28 million in public money via grants.

Campaign group GM Freeze cites numerous reasons why the trail should be opposed, from using genes from animal origin to cross contamination, from risks to wildlife to the fact that there are alternative solutions to the problem of aphids. According to group, the director of Rothamsted Research, prof. Maurice Maloney, has spent his entire career on GM technology and was previously Chief Scientific Officer at SemBioSys Genetics Inc, a biotechnology company he founded in 1994 in Canada.

Wrong attitude

In February 2012, the British Science Association commissioned Populus to conduct a GM Survey to find out what the public’s attitudes towards GM are now. GM Freeze argues that many of the questions in the survey were “misleading” and that they provided participants with false information about GM crops. For example, the survey claimed that Golden Rice, which is genetically modified to produce beta carotene, can tackle vitamin A deficiency, even though this has not been proven and the crop has not received food safety approvals yet.

The survey results have been reported very differently by mainstream media, with The Guardian running such headlines as ‘Public concern over GM food has lessened, survey shows’ and ‘Should the UK now embrace GM food?’. Meanwhile the Daily Mail, which has traditionally been a sceptic of GM, ran with the headline ‘Backing for GM food has halved since the 1990s with one in three Brits now opposed to it’.

The actual results of the survey and the variety of interpretations given to them clearly demonstrate the continuation of the contested nature of GM in the UK, which could be an advantage for campaigners, many of who spent years resisting the introduction of GM in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What is certainly clear is that there has not been a huge increase in public support for GM. Indeed, Brain Wynne, a leading researcher on the economic and social aspects of genomics at Lancaster University, wrote to The Guardian in March this year to complain about its misleading headline, pointing out that the percentage of the public who say they agree that GM food “should be encouraged” has dropped by nearly a half over the last ten years, which is the opposite of what the headline claims.


In a recent appeal video, Rothamsted Research appealed to campaigners not to take direct action against the trail and asked for ‘dialogue’. One of the campaign groups that have has also agreed to engage in dialogue with Rothamsted is Take The Flour Back, though it is also planning a mass direct action against the trail on 27th May. Take The Flour Back has written an open letter to Rothamsted saying they wish to engage in dialogue so that “both sides of the debate have an equal chance to hear and understand each others’ perspectives.” On Thursday 17th May, a public debate about the issue was hosted by the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

Such dialogues are often used by corporations as a ‘holding tactic’ or as a way of ‘pacifying’ activists. Those who support GM have simply ignored public and scientific objections made to this new trail before it started. Objections continue to be made, however, with one group of MPs, The Environmental Audit Committee, calling on the government to refrain from licensing GM crops until their benefits have been proved. The committee last week released a report questioning the government’s support for GM technology.

For more on this, see Corporate Watch’s analysis of ‘upstream engagement’ in relation to corporate technologies, which is a type of top-down engagement with ‘the public’, facilitated by academics on behalf of government and the industries involved in the development of new technologies.