The Government has given the go-ahead for the first growing trials of GM wheat. Farming Editor Peter Hall looks at the latest developments in this highly emotive topic.
Activists determined to stop the development of genetically modified food in the UK are planning a mass protest against the first trials of GM wheat in this country.
Their opposition has been rumbling for years, and now they will have another chance to voice their dissent.
The more militant among them may even try to establish exactly where the trials are taking place so they can attempt to trash the crop, even though £120,000 is being spent on round-the-clock security. Some years ago we saw masked eco-warriors in white coveralls skirmishing with police on a GM trials plot.
How correct their extreme militancy really is can only be a matter of conjecture. But after all, how can anything be sensibly assessed if its trial has not been given a fair chance?
Interfering with nature is a highly emotive topic. Almost all our crops have been developed by man over the centuries through careful breeding systems, but not genetically.
Do we do it at our peril? The world beyond the European Union doesn't think so, and the GM culture has been widely embraced at a global level. After all, ostensibly it has a lot to offer a world where the fast-expanding population needs more and more food. Drought, disease, insect and parasite-resistant crops, which can also incorporate highly beneficial pharmaceuticals, must surely be the way forward for mankind?
But what are the spin-offs, the detrimental effects on natural flora and fauna, cross-contamination with conventional, and especially organically grown, crops?
This is where the big seed companies, like Monsanto, missed the bounce altogether years ago – failing to do the necessary public relations, failing to show the pros, to accentuate the positive. It was a big mistake and one that has cost them dear.
Within the EU there is widespread and genuine fear of GM and all it stands for, though individual Member States have been given a degree of flexibility over crop trials. Currently the French government faces high court action by maize farmers and seed companies, whom it has prevented from growing GM, when they thought they could. Other EU governments will be watching developments closely.
The economic recession has hit the organic food industry hard, but it still contributes an important, (though albeit modest), part of the nation's dietary needs. And nowhere will you find more organic growers than in the Westcountry – people who are going to take extreme exception if anyone starts growing GM crops within bumble-bee distance of their fields. Their concerns are highly understandable.
Now I know that to feed the world, with its burgeoning populations, it is totally unrealistic to expect the organic sector to play any sort of major part. The projections are mind-boggling; a land mass the size of Western Europe needed under cultivation to organically feed the UK, I have heard.
But producers must be allowed to grow organic food, and make a living from it, and consumers must be able to have the choice of buying organic if that is what they want. It has become virtually a fundamental right in the western world.
That, presumably, is what the protest group, called "Take The Flour Back", is all about. It is planning a mass picket outside Rothamsted Research station in Hertfordshire on May 27, its members intent on making their feelings known about the growing of Cadenza wheat, which has been modified to be aphid-free.
Unsurprisingly, Take The Flour Back has a website, which claims widespread support for its actions, and hopes as many people as possible will arrive at Rothamsted's gates to make their feeling known, as vociferously as they can. They are particularly worried that the trials are happening out in the open rather than inside a laboratory, claiming that when the wheat begins to flower it could cross-contaminate nearby wheat crops, and even wild grasses.
The trials, which gained Government approval last month, are going to cost the nation £1 million and will run over two consecutive seasons, so the results may be fully assessed.
But the trials are not going to be large-scale. In fact there are going to be only eight of them, each on plots of just six square metres, with buffers between. A large security fence will surround the plots, as well as a ditch, to keep out humans, birds, hedgehogs, foxes, rats and mice, rabbits – and anything else that may want to intervene.
The authorities at Rothamsted Research are naturally keen to head off as many protester problems as they possibly can, and are prepared to be conciliatory.
"We are committed to engaging with people who have a diversity of views around our work," said Rothamsted director Maurice Moloney.