Science & Environment

Scientists apply for GM wheat trial in UK

GM Wheat Image copyright ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH
Image caption Could this GM wheat help meet the growing global demand for food?

Researchers have applied for a licence to carry out a trial of a genetically modified wheat crop in a small field in Hertfordshire.

The GM wheat converts sunlight into chemical energy (photosynthesis) more efficiently, boosting growth.

If the government grants permission, the experiment would potentially be the second ongoing field trial in the UK.

A go-ahead would indicate a softening in opposition to outdoor experiments to develop GM crops in Britain.

The researchers believe that the variety has potential to greatly increase crop yields. The purpose of the proposed trial is to evaluate the performance of the engineered plants in the field.

Approval could be granted by the end of January 2017 and the first crops could be planted next spring at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden.

GM technology has been around for more 20 years, but some of the first open air trails of genetically modified crops in the late 1990s were disrupted by protesters who trampled on the plants.

Campaign groups were concerned that genes would flow from the GM crops and enter neighbouring plants and so create "super weeds".

As a result of public opposition to the technology at the time there were no outdoor trials of the technology between 2003 and 2010.

Image copyright BBC News
Image caption In the 1990s protestors trampled GM crop experiments. As a result there were no outdoor trials for several years

There were protests against two field trails approved since then, in 2009 and 2011, but they were not as fierce as the ones a decade earlier.

And there have been no protests against a field trail of GM rape seed planted in 2014 at Rothamsted Research which is still on going.

Prof Christine Raines, head of the school of biological sciences at the University of Essex, who is involved with the proposed wheat trial, believes that public fears over GM technology have reduced in recent years.

"I believe that there is less opposition to GM," she told BBC News.

"I would like to think that it is to do with the fact there has been a great effort made by plant scientists to explain more fully and clearly the potential of GM plants to improve our future".

Image copyright Christine Raines Essex University
Image caption The three GM wheat plants on the right are bigger and bushier than the non-GM varieties on the left and have a higher yield

Prof Raines says that outdoor field trials are essential if scientists are to to find new ways to boost food production.

Yields in wheat have not increased in the past 30 years using traditional breeding techniques, she says.

And according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's projections, world food production will have to be increased by by 40% in the next 20 years and 70% by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population.

Efficiency

"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," said Prof Raines.

In greenhouses the wheat yields increased by between 20% and 40%, according to Prof Raines.

Greenhouses provide the perfect conditions for plants and so yields are not expected to be as high in the field.

But if yield increases by half that if and when the crops are planted outdoors the researchers will be delighted, according to Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, head of the plant biology and crop science department at Rothamsted Research and one of the lead scientists for the proposed wheat trial.

"These field trials are the only way to assess the viability of a solution that can bring economic benefits to the farmers, returns to the UK tax payer of the long-term investment in this research, benefits to the UK economy as a whole and the environment in general," he said.

Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, said: "We know 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."

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