GM crops trial at Harpenden’s Rothamsted Research

OPINIONS have been divided after the Government gave the go ahead for scientists to trial genetically modified wheat in Harpenden.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) granted permission for the trial last week, at the three-acre site at Rothamsted Research.

The plants have been modified to resist aphids, which are a pest to wheat, and will be sown in 2012 and 2013.

Rothamsted Research has welcomed the decision and director Maurice Moloney has stressed that, with wheat being the most important UK crop, no one should underestimate the economic losses due to aphids.

He said: “For the UK wheat farming community, the damage aphids cause to crops can devastate their livelihoods.

“Aphids are usually controlled by insecticides, but our scientists are seeking natural solutions to this problem.”

Farmer Bob Fiddaman, of Wood Farm on the edge of Redbourn, has also thrown his support behind the trials.

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“I’m very much for it,” he said. “Aphids cause problems which can make the wheat unsuitable for humans, so anything which can stop this is bound to be a benefit in my view.”

He continued: “Wheat yields have flatlined for the last 10 years. I think that the general feeling amongst farmers is that anything which increases yield and the quality of the wheat is a good thing.”

The application was granted following an evaluation by independent group, the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment, which was satisfied the trial would not result in any adverse effects on human health or the environment.

A spokesperson for Defra said: “Protecting consumers and the environment is our top priority and we’re permitting a tightly-controlled, small-scale trial, in which none of the wheat will enter the food chain.”

However, others in the area have raised strong concerns over the plans.

St Albans Green Party councilor, Simon Grover, said: “It’s disturbing to learn that this trial is taking place on our doorstep when there is a significant chance that even a small trial could contaminate non-GM crops and wildlife in the surrounding area.

“There is no demonstrated benefit of GM to anyone except the biotech industry itself, and huge areas of concern with it, including in the areas of health, the environment, and the question of liability.”

Anti-GM campaigners have branded the decision as “a big mistake and premature”.

Pete Riley, of GM Freeze, raised several concerns, including the unknown impact on bird species which feed on aphids as part of their diet, the risk of cross-contamination with other wheat crops and serious doubts about whether the wheat will work as stated.

“The key question ministers need to answer is why they are funding research into GM wheat, for which there is no market in the UK, Europe or anywhere else, when other areas of proven, less risky agricultural research, such as agroecology, are crying out for additional funds,” he said.

“The decision to approve an open-air trial of GM wheat is a big mistake and premature when given the serious lack of information the application.”

The site is to be protected by a chain link fence following attacks at previous GM trials elsewhere in the UK.