GM researcher despairs as three years' work destroyed

Leeds scientist hits out at 'zealots' and urges secrecy for future small-scale field trials, reports Zoe Corbyn

August 7, 2008

In just one night, Howard Atkinson lost an entire three-year research project to saboteurs believed to be anti-GM campaigners.

The nematologist from the University of Leeds explained what had happened on 4 June: "The experimental officer went to check the field at about 4.30pm, and then the next morning to do something else, and all the plants had been pulled up."

Professor Atkinson's field trial of about 400 potato plants, which had been genetically modified to make them resistant to nematode worms, had been destroyed.

The plants, which had been growing for only three weeks, were the final stage in a three-year research project funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.

After the genetically modified plants were started in greenhouses, the field trial was the essential next step and "too small to represent any environmental risk", said Professor Atkinson, who works at the University of Leeds Centre for Plant Sciences.

Anti-GM campaigners knew where to find the field in question, the professor said, because British scientists are required to publish the co-ordinates of every GM field trial. Locations can be pinpointed within less than a square kilometre. The trial was, according to the professor, the only small-scale field trial of GM crops currently being run by a university in Britain and the plants were on the university's farm, unprotected by guards or a fence.

Last week, Professor Atkinson went to the media with his story, blaming what he believes is a "small cell of zealots". He said the destruction of the crop was an affront to academic freedom.

Controversially, he likened the vandalism to book-burning in Nazi Germany, prompting environmental group Friends of the Earth to call for an apology for the comparison.

The BBSRC also weighed in, saying that the professor had made an "unfortunate" choice of words, but insisting that the remarks were a measure of his frustration.

Professor Atkinson, however, is unrepentant. "I can't see the distinction between burning books, which are only a copy of knowledge, and destroying new knowledge now. I think there has to be a line drawn in the sand. Exactly what science is the UK university sector going to be allowed to do?" he said in an interview with Times Higher Education.

"It is perhaps unfortunate that strong words are needed to generate public debate ... (The point I am making is that) new knowledge was destroyed and lost before it could reach scientific journals to inform policy and the public debate," he said.

Professor Atkinson, who has been invited to meet Phil Woolas, the Minister for the Environment, to discuss the situation, has two suggestions about what can be done at national level to ensure that his experience is not repeated.

The first is that Britain should take a leaf out of Canada's book in keeping the location of small-scale trials secret. "I think the paradigm we should follow is the Canadian regulations," he said.

Canadian scientists provide the authorities with details of their experiments and a site inspection is carried out, but unless it is a large-scale trial the information and location is not revealed.

His second suggestion is that a national secure field-testing site be created to spread the costs among universities and others who want to conduct trials.

"I don't think it is very easy for the University of Leeds to defend these trials (from saboteurs) under the current situation," Professor Atkinson said.

It is an idea that meets with the approval of Wayne Powell, chief executive of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) plant research charity. Professor Powell takes up post in September as director of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University. A GM field trial run by Professor Powell was attacked last year.

And these are by no means isolated events - almost all the 54 GM crop trials attempted in Britain since 2000 have suffered vandalism of some type.

"What a university should be doing is having facilities that are fit for purpose ... I don't think that universities should necessarily be doing this in isolation," he said.

Professor Powell said that vandalism of the crops was a major "psychological problem" for researchers. "Sat in a lab you have got to be able to take the discovery and translate it ... (and damage to the crops) does inhibit innovation."

Professor Atkinson, who has a three-year licence to conduct GM trials, said he had not yet decided how to pick up the pieces of his research project. He said he may abandon trials altogether.

Putting fences around field-trial sites, he said, would cost a six-figure sum, and initial security advice was that this would make the presence of the trial more, not less, obvious.

"Is it appropriate for a university to put up a steel fence and all the rest of it at (a cost of) maybe £100,000 to protect lawful activity from zealots? I am not even sure that is the direction I want to go in," Professor Atkinson said.

He has received an offer from Canadian researchers to conduct the trial there. "I could take up the offer ... but I don't think that is good for the UK or British agriculture either," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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