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Genetically modified wheat could be grown in Britain from next spring

Nov 10, 2016

“By 2050 there will be 34 per cent more people on the planet and we can’t just sit back and assume all will be well. We really do have an impending major food shortage crisis across the globe.

Genetically modified wheat could be grown in Britain from next spring after scientists applied to the Department for the Environment for permission to begin trials which could boost grain yields by up to 40 per cent, in a ‘world's first’ experiment.

Researchers at the universities of Essex, Lancaster and Rothamsted Research have proven that it is possible to engineer wheat plants so they photosynthesise more efficiently, and so produce bigger grains.

Greenhouse tests have already shown it is possible to grow GM plants which have yields which are up to 40 per cent higher than usual crops, but now scientists are keen to find out whether the same effect can be achieved in the field.

If successful it would mark a ‘step change’ in wheat production and silence the critics who claim genetic modification will never increase yields following 20 years of failed attempts.

Even though the US has been using genetically modified versions of corn, rapeseed and sugar beet for some time, a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences from there was little evidence to suggest GM yields had increased more than natural varieties.

However British scientists believe they have cracked the problem by genetically altering wheat so it produces higher levels of an enzyme which is crucial for turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into plant fuel.

Professor Christine Raines, Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex, said: “This is the first time that GM wheat has been put into the field targeted at increasing its yield.

“Scientifically we have the potential to produce wheat plants which deliver a significantly increased yields. It could mark a step change in wheat production.

“By 2050 there will be 34 per cent more people on the planet and we can’t just sit back and assume all will be well. We really do have an impending major food shortage crisis across the globe.

Scientists submitted an application to Defra this week and a public consultation of around six weeks has now begun. If granted the first small trial of around will begin at Rothamsted’s secure GM field in Harpenden, Hertfordshire in April. Plants will be harvested the following autumn before a second phase will take place in the spring of 2018.

 Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, Head of Plant Biology and Crop Science Department at Rothamsted, said: “We can increase yields in crops in a greenhouse and now we would like to test it if will work in the field.

“If we are granted permission to perform a controlled experiment it will be a significant step forward.”

Wheat is one of the three main stable crops grown worldwide, alongside maize and rice. But if farming is to keep up with predicted population increases, yields would need to increase by 70 per cent by 2050. Although plant breeding and better fertilisers have steadily increased yields, scientists believe wheat has now reached the limit of what can be achieved naturally.

The new technique involves taking a wheat seed, slicing it in half and then bombarding it with gold particles which carry genes which code for SBPase – an enzyme which is crucial for converting energy from sunlight and carbon dioxide.  One field experiment will add two genes, while another will add six genes.

However the experiment was criticised by campaigners who claimed consumers did not want genetically modified food.

Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association said: “First of all on wheat we know there is no demand for GM – 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 who buy wheat particularly for bread. We think this work on GM wheat is irrelevant to actual farmers.”

Liz O’Neill, Director of GM Freeze said that there was already enough food in the world but it did not get to those who need it most.

“Rothamsted’s researchers have totally missed the point – why do we want to grow more wheat in the first place,” she said.

“World food production already far exceeds the needs of generations to come but people still go hungry. Techno-fixes like GM wheat won’t change that because they don’t address the real problems.

“GM is a bogus solution sucking up funding that could make a real difference if it was spent on waste reduction and poverty eradication.”

Recent trials at Rothamsted to genetically modify wheat to make it more resistant to aphids failed during field trials.

Defra confirmed it had received the application and will respond within the 90 day time limit.

Source: The Telegraph
Sarah Knapton, Science Editor