Farming News - Rothamsted applies to grow GM Wheat

Rothamsted applies to grow GM Wheat

07 Nov 2016
Frontdesk / Arable

Rothamsted Research, which conducted controversial open-air trials on genetically modified ‘whiffy wheat’ four years ago, has applied to Defra for permission to conduct more field trials of GM crops.

Rothamsted, which receives public funding through agricultural research council BBSRC, applied to Defra on 3rd November with plans to conduct GM field trials in partnership with the Universities of Essex and Lancaster. Scientists want to trial wheat plants that have been engineered to photosynthesise more efficiently, which they say could lead to higher yielding plants. Having trialled the plants in glasshouses, they now want to test their performance in the open field.

Announcing their submission to Defra, the scientists said their work could help end the plateau seen in global wheat yields, and address food security concerns.

The plants have been modified to produce higher levels of a certain enzyme that plays a role in photosynthesis, by introducing a gene from the stiff brome plant, which is related to wheat and is used as a ‘model organism’ in some plant research. The researchers plan to trial two types of GM wheat plant, one with two extra copies of the gene, and one with an extra six.  

Defra should assess the potential environmental impacts of allowing the trial to go ahead in open air. In recent years, unlicensed GM wheat from trials conducted by Monsanto in the early 00s has been found growing wild in several US states, over ten years after they were initially trialled. The most recent example was in Washington State in August this year, and all discoveries had implications for farmers growing and exporting wheat in the affected states.   

Commenting on the Rothamsted trial, professor Christine Raines, Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex, who has worked on the GM wheat, said, “The efficiency of the process of photosynthesis integrated over the season is the major determinant of crop yield. However, to date photosynthesis has not been used to select for high yielding crops in conventional breeding programmes and represents an unexploited opportunity. But there is now evidence that improving the efficiency of photosynthesis by genetic modification is one of the promising approaches to achieve higher wheat yield potential.”

 “In this project we have genetically modified wheat plants to increase the efficiency of the conversion of energy from sunlight into biomass. We have shown that these plants carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in glasshouse conditions.”

In 2012, plans to trial ‘whiffy wheat’ engineered to release chemical signals that scientists hoped would deter aphids attracted significant numbers of protestors to Rothamsted. Last year, the scientists behind the publicly-funded trial revealed that the GM wheat was no more effective at repelling aphids than conventional varieties. The trial itself cost over £700,000, and Rothamsted spent over £2m on security measures to keep protestors out of the controversial field trial site.

Repeating criticisms that were initially levelled at the 2012 Whiffy Wheat project, Soil Association Policy director Peter Melchett told Farming Online, “There is no demand for GM wheat – even in the US, and certainly not in Europe or the UK. GM wheat has been available in the US for over 15 years but never commercialised because of strong opposition in the marketplace, from the people who buy wheat, particularly for bread. We think this work on GM wheat is completely irrelevant to actual farmers.”