Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Flour to the people!

 This post is written as an individual and all opinions within it are my own.  It is not the opinion of Rothamsted Research.

Yesterday a man was charged after breaking in to one of Rothamsted Research's experimental plots, attempting to damage plants used in an ongoing trial of wheat genetically modified to produce aphid alarm pheromone, the chemical aphids produce to warn others of danger.  The arrogance of his actions are truly astounding - what possible mandate could a single individual believe they have to destroy six years of publicly funded research?  But he is not alone, his actions were presumably inspired by a protest group called Take the Flour Back  which is proposing to destroy the trial next Saturday.

In response researchers at Rothamsted have taken the unusual step of appealing directly to these activists, in an open letter from John Pickett in New Scientist and a video appeal from Gia Aradottir:

John Pickett also appeared on Newsnight last week, and was barely able to get a word in edgeways (from 22 minutes).

Speaking as someone with more than a passing interest of science communication the strategy Rothamsted are persuing is fascinating - this is the first time I've seen seen scientists trying to engage protestors over the  strong values that have led them to protest, rather than assuming that they'll change their minds if provided with more facts.  Perhaps as a result. the news coverage of this particular scientific issue has been excellent, with the Guardian for example providing a contrasting point of view from a qualified scientist rather than whichever contrarian the journalist has on speed dial.  Speaking as a scientist, the prospect that this group can simply propose to stroll up and destroy years of vital work is deeply worrying.

Wheat is a vital crop, estimated in 2007 to provide 530 calories per person per day.  Over 650 million metric tonnes of wheat were produced in 2010 on almost 217 million hectares of land.  As these mindboggling figures show, wheat cultivation is vital to our ability to feed the world's population, and likely to become more so as the population increases.  Almost two million hectares are devoted to wheat cultivation in the UK alone.  We typically think of aphids as a minor nuisance, a threat to our kitchen windowsill coriander and broad beans, if we think of them at all but these innocous looking insects are capable of reducing wheat yields by up to 33% under the right circumstances 1 .  In the UK cereal insect outbreaks are typically treated with insecticides such as HallmarkZeon  or Aphox.

The grain aphid Sitobion avenae, image from Rothamsted Research
The need to provide food for an ever expanding world population in an increasingly unpredictable climate, whilst reducing the environmental damage caused by current industrial farming techniques, is something that Rothamsted scientist are just as concerend about as the environmental protestors planning on disrupting their work.  Indeed this trial, like so much of Rothamsted's other work, aims to provide practical tools to address these issues.  No one is denying that the current system of food distribution is thoroughly inequitable, that the fact that famines and "Man Vs Food" can exist on the same planet is obscene, that women desperately need access to the contraceptives they want to protect their health and plan their families or that we need urgent action on the greenhouse emissions making the climate less hospitable for agriculture year by year, but none of this will happen overnight.  In the short term we need new technologies, to feed more people from the same or even less land using fewer energy intensive and potentially environmentally damaging inputs like pesticides.  That is where this wheat comes in.

The wheat in this trial produces aphid alarm pheromone, an airborne signal which aphids use to alert others to danger. This deters other aphids from landing close by and may attract natural predators by informing them that there are injured aphids nearby which will make an easy meal.  This signalling system was "hacked" by plants in the mint family millenia ago, allowing them to naturally produce their own version of the pheromone which tricks aphids into thinking that they're a dangerous place to feed and so keeps them safe from predation.  The trial aims to see whether this protection can be introduced into wheat.

Aphids responding to alarm pheromone

There does seem to be quite a lot of misinformation out there about this trial - firstly, the wheat does not contain a cow gene.  What it contains is a synthetic promoter which has some sequence similarity to a cow promoter, which is not in fact the Laughing Cow's theatrical agent: a promoter is a short DNA sequence in front of a gene which tells the organism which circumstances to make the gene product under - at night say, or only in leaves.  If the gene product is a birthday cake, the gene could be theought of as the recipe for the cake and the promoter would be your diary with a list of bakeworthy friends' birthdays, telling you when to make the cake.  The cake in this case is the protein producing aphid alarm pheromone, the gene or recipe comes from a mint plant and the promoter had to be different from any promoters in the wheat already so the researchers could be sure it wouldn't be accidentally turned on in the wrong circumstances.  It's basically the equivalent of a lot of random Filofax pages which were bound together by the researchers into something which happened to ressemble the diary of a sentient cow who knew how to bake birthday cakes and owned a Filofax.  I'll stop there before I disappear up my own analogy, but you get the picture.

A number of measures have been taken to ensure that this wheat cannot escape into the wider environment. The variety of wheat selected for the trial is self pollinating, and the plot is surrounded by a buffer zone of barley, with which the wheat cannot cross-pollinate, far wider than the distance the heavy pollen can be blown ion the wind.  The fact that it is self pollinating also means that contrary to some concerns out there, pollinating insects like bees and butterflies are not exposed to gm pollen.

Concerns have also been raised about the possibility of apids evolving resistance to the alarm pheromone, citing the fact that insects evolve insecticide resistance.  This is extremely unlikely: not only have aphids been exposed to alarm pheromone produced by the mint family for millenia without deveoping resistance, but unlike the situation with insecticides evolving resistance to alarm pheromone would have significant costs to an aphid, making it less responsive to genuine alarm pheromone and hence at greater risk of becoming a tasty snack for passing ladybirds already chomping on its sisters.

Wheat fields, image from Rothamsted Research
A lot has also been made of the fact that this is spring wheat, not winter wheat which is more widely cultivated in the UK.  Somehow the fact that this is a preliminary trial doesn't seem to have been explained - this test in spring wheat is only to find out whether the modified plants do indeed suffer less aphid damage.  If this is inedeed the case the technology could be used in other varieties.

That's not to say there are no legitimate concerns about gm technology.  With antibiotic resistance on the rise the use of antibiotic resistance genes as markers is being phased out.  I presume an antibiotic resistance gene was used in this trial because it has been running for so long that it was started before alternatives became available but I have to admit that I don't know the reasoning behind this for certain.  However, as I noted above this is a preliminary trial to test whether the principle works, rather than the finished agricultural product - if this wheat were to be developed further I'm sure a different marker system would be used.  While the risks of horizontal gene transfer of antibiotic resistance genes into bacteria from this trial are not zero, they are negligible when compared with the large scale routine use of antibiotics in the meat industry.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone to argue that anything Monsanto has done is beneficial, but just because a technology has been used for profit with little concern for the environment doesn't mean the technology is inherently bad - a gun and a teaspoon are both made by metalwork but that does not mean they're used for the same thing2. The patenting of gene variants assosciated with breast cancer was recently overturned, but the fact that this particular technology was inappropriately commercialised doesn't invalidate the entire practice of genetic tests for disease.

Wheat field, image from Rothamsted Research
In the interests of full disclosure I should start be saying that I am a Phd student at Rothamsted.  Part of my funding is provided through Rothamsted, although it will stop being provided through Rothamsted at the end of May when I come to the end of my PhD, at which point it will be provided by two blindness charities and most probably my ability to stack shelves in a grocery store.  My work is nothing to do with this wheat project, but the aspect that concerns insect olfaction is partially supervised by John Pickett.  I realise this leaves me open to suggestions that I'm biased because I'm too close to this research, but I'm sure a lot of the people supporting Take Back the Flour are commintted environmentalists with jobs dedicated to improving sustainability - by that logic should they not be allowed to hold opinions on environmental matters? My connection to Rothamsted allows me to know a little bit about the project and the participants; it means that I know both John Pickett and Gia Aradottir, and know that they are fundamentally decent people who are not doing this out of malice or for personal profit. John Pickett has an infectious laugh, plays the trumpet in a local jazz band and is the sort of person who can't bear to see a penniless student in a pub without a drink, a situation which he will always seek to remedy.  He also knows a truly terrifying amount about how insects react to odours. Gia is one of the most compassionate people out there - she supported me when I had depression and I honestly don't think I would still be doing this PhD if it hadn't been for her.  I don't know Toby Bruce very well, but whenever I run into him in the kitchen he always asks me how my writeup is going, and I always say fine and smile uneasily.  In short, they are perfectly pleasant human beings who don't wander about in labcoats bulging with wads of industrial cash, zapping corn dollies with lightning to make make Frankenflour whilst cackling maniaically.

It lives! It lives!

I realise that I'm also open to the charge of hypocrisy, as my coeliac disease means I can't eat this genetically modified wheat or indeed any other wheat.  If wheat were ever genetically modified to be gluten-free though, you can bet I'd eat it like a shot.

I'm a scientist but also consider myself an environmentalist.  I first heard about Take the Flour Back from the newsletter of the Low Impact Living Initiative, to which I subscribe.  I have the full crunchy-granola starter kit of Keep Cup, Mooncap and garden wormery, and most importantly I know which goes where.  I grow garden veg, worry about food miles, carry my purchases from the People's Supermarket home by public transport in my reusable Turtle Bag, and keep rotting kitchen scraps for composting in a tin labelled "biscuits" to trick the unwary.

Watching Newsnight was an odd experience for me because the Take the Flour Back speaker, Jyoti Fernanades, is in many ways living my dream - she has a mixed smallholding in Dorset which she farms sustainably and teaches courses on.  I've always harboured a secret dream of finding some land in the west country, building a cob or strawbale house, planting a forest garden and keeping bees and silkworms, maybe some livestock.  If I'd encountered her in other circumstances I'd probably have considered her a fellow traveller, so it was strange to hear her on television espousing views that I disagree with entirely.  I'm also rather disappointed that Transition Heathrow, who are doing great things on an abandoned market garden near where I live, are supporting this action.

I'm not saying this to ask for a cookie (although a cookie would be nice, especially if it was made out of the afforementioned gluten-free wheat) but to demonstrate that it's possible to both be a scientist and care about the environment.  In fact it's not just possibly, I'm guessing it's common.

I care because I'm a human - the natural world is an incredibly beautiful place and nothing can approach the pleasure of walking the same route every day for years and watching it change through the seasons, from the bleak grey of winter through the merest hint of green to a riot of hawthorne and elder, or the joy of locking eyes with a robin whilst gardening and feeling, just for a fraction of a second, a moment of connection, or the awe I felt seeing the Milky Way from Africa, free of light pollution for the first time.  I plan on spawning some day,  and I want my theoretical future children to be able to experience that same wonder.  But I also care as a scientist - awe is magnified by understanding.

I remember the first time I learned about the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle in primary school, realising how nothing is created or destroyed but that we are all part of a finite closed system.  I remember the first time I saw an insect under a microscope at secondary school (oddly ebough it was a housefly), being astounded by the precise construction of this tiny living thing, with all it hairs and protrusions and graceful curves.  I remember thinking "Wow, if a fly looks like that what must I look like under a microscope?" and being so disappointed when I put my own finger under and found it to be featureless, realising for the first time that humans were not the most amazing things out there. I remember learning about evolution, the amazement I felt on realising that this blind, directionless system had designed beings that fit their environment so perfectly, the profound sense of connection I felt to the rest of the natural world on realising that all of us, earthworms and frogs and dandelions and amoebae and me, were built from the same basic building blocks by the same biochemical pathways.  The natural world is more incredible than we can possibly imagine, and personally I feel that anything but a scientific appreciation of it sells it short.

I seem to have spent much of this post finding "-ist" words I can use to describe myself: scientist, environmentalist, ecologist.  First and foremost though I'm a humanist - we are the only creatures on this planet who can feel that awe and wonder at the natural world and that makes us special, each and every one of the seven billion plus of us.  If all of us are to be fed on a finite planet, and not just enough to survive but to thrive and to have the same opportunity I have to rejoice in all the glory of nature, then something has to give and I strongly believe that an evidence-based approach, considering all the technologies available to us, is the best way to ensure that as little has to give as possible.

Sustainability: Rothamsted's carbon-capture experiments, image from Rothamsted Research
In conclusion, supporters of Take the Flour Back must realise that the scientists conducting this experiement are ordinary people concerned about feeding an ever-growing population whilst reducing damage to our shared planet, just like they are. We need to keep talking and listening, building rather than destroying, because we're all on the same side here.

Sense About Science is running a campaign appealing to these activists not to destroy this vital research.  You can sign the petition here.

Oakley, J.N., S.D. Wratten, A.F.G. Dixon and N. Carter. 1988. The Biology of Cereal Aphids. Home Grown Cereals Authority. Research Report No. 10.
It has been pointed out to me that you could, in fact, stir your tea with a small gun.


Small Footprints said...

Thank you for such an informative post and for presenting another side to this controversial subject. There have been so many bad things happen to people by parties who claim to have their best interest at heart. Granted, they don't represent every organization or scientist ... but it has happened with enough frequency that we no longer trust anyone when they tell us something is perfectly safe. There's also been a lack of transparency ... we aren't typically given the facts and are only told what they want us to know. Case in point ... in the US there are ongoing battles about the labeling of GMO products. So I understand the basis of the "Take the Flour Back" movement. Perhaps the answer lies in communication and the sharing of information. Your post has gone a long way to that end. Thank you!

Small Footprints said...

By the way ... a link to your post was included in my blog's Meet & Greet: http://reducefootprints.blogspot.com/2012/05/meet-greet-monday-mtagt_21.html
I'm so glad it was because we all need to be open minded and consider all sides to an issue before making a decision. Thanks, again!

Argentum Vulgaris said...

I had seen reference to the project and dismissed it as just another GMO and quietly hoped the protesters more power. Having now read your plea and reasoning, I can see that while your project is GMO, it's not related to pesticides, therefore I follow the failure to develop resistance line of the research. It is the first time I have read of this type of GM.

Good luck with developing dialogue.

Your link was passed on to me via Small Footprints, and I thank her.


Jules said...

Thank very much for reading and sharing Small Footprints and Argentum Vulgaris. I completely agree that the way forward is better communication and sharing of information, which includes listening on both sides - you're right that gm technology (and actually a fair bit of science) does have an unfortunate history of talking down to people, claiming it's in their own interests. That unfortunate baggage does mean that people are no longer willing to trust people when they say something is safe - have you read Not easy to be green's Fuzzy Lenses post? http://noteasytobegreen.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/seeing-through-fuzzy-lenses/ I think a lot of people do now tend to dismiss everything gm because of Monsanto's behaviour, but ironically damaging this publically-funded field trail will push the technology further into the hands of large corporations because they'll be the only ones able to afford the security to run trials.

Argentum Vulgaris: this is a new type of genetic modificationwhich exploits a fairly new pest management principle called chemical ecology. Instead of just blitzing everything this involves getting a better understanding of how the insects are actually interacting with the crop ecosystem - in general insects rely most on smell to navigate the world, to tell them what's worth eating, what's not and where potential mates and egg laying sites are, and different species may rely on different airborn chemicals for all of these. By understanding these systems better we hope to be able to manipulate the behaviour of specific insect species, making crops less attractive or traps more so say. My own PhD is on finding the odours attractive to the fly that spreads a blinding disease so they can be used to bait traps. There's some information on another interesting chemical ecology project Rothamsted is running here: http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/Content.php?Section=SuccessStories&Page=PushPull. I really should get around to writing a blog post on chemical ecology, I didn't want to overwhelm people with too many technical terms in this post.

noteasytobegreen said...

I shared your post on Reduce Footprints. Hope you don't mind. :) I thought more people needed to read it. I think your perspective as a scientist *and* greenie puts you in an excellent position to open up some communication between the two groups. I emailed Take the Flour Back to urge them to engage in conversation rather than destruction.

And I would love to read about chemical ecology!

Jules said...

Thanks Noteasytobegreen, I don't mind at all - the more discussion the better!

Jimll said...

Thanks for posting a really interesting view on this topic. I'm in a similar boat: I'm a techie/science geek and I can see the value of GM/biotech/etc to helping solve the impending problems posed by climate change, Peak Oil and population explosion. Many of the arguments about the GM science I've heard from anti-GM folk seem to be mostly arm waving "I don't understand this but I just know its bad", whereas descriptions from the scientists seem more cogent and believable.

Where I do come up against GM though is the rampant commercialisation and its use to promote _more_ use of pesticides/herbicides. The classic example is Monsanto and its "Roundup-Ready" GM crops - they're cashing in on both selling GM crops resistant to their herbicide and the herbicide itself. They want the farmers to grow the GM crop and then spray Roundup (aka glyphosate) to reduce Weeds (and with it biodiversity of the fields).

I'm also very concerned about the patent issues whereby GM firms can start suing and putting out of business organic farmers who have never bought their products because nearby GM farms have "leeched" bits of patented DNA into self-saved seeds via cross pollination (as I believe has happened in Canada). That's a really large negative downside of the GM industry for me, but I don't think it should be used to stop the basic research still.

Jules said...

Thanks for your comment Jim, I agree completely that gm technology has been used by companies like Monsanto entirely for profit, but to me that's a very strong argument for allowing publically funded research to challenge this monopoly.

The Canadian case was appalling but I think this is a case where the legislation needs to catch up, rather than that the science needs to slow - we're already seeing that sort of thing with the overturning of the patent on the DNA sequence used for breast cancer testing and I hope things continue in that direction.

Going off at a bit of a tangent for a second, I do believe that patenting laws as they stand don't just hinder scientific progress, by making it harder to freely share information but have some pretty harmful consequences like preventing poorer countries from making their own generic versions of drugs or allowing companies to sue people who have accidentally grown plants containing their modifications. I do understand the argument that companies need to recoup the costs of research, and as universities and research institutes get their funding cut they need to look at commercialising their discoveries to find another source of income, but I can't help feeling we should be able to find a better system. Perhaps more public funding is the answer, but over the course of this debate so many people have said to me that they don't want their tax money going to fund research like this. I can sympathise - I don't like the fact that the tax I pay funds nuslear weapons and contracts with companies like ATOS, and with public services being hacked away all over the place its hard to justify more money for research, but I do wonder if this is the way forward?