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UK: new GM wheat trial gets go-ahead

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A new experimental crop of genetically modified (GM) wheat is going to be planted this spring after the UK government gave the final go-ahead. The GM wheat has been engineered to use sunlight more efficiently and has boosted greenhouse yields by up to 40%. Researchers now want to see if they can replicate this performance in the field. Critics say that boosting wheat yields is not an answer to global food shortages.

Crop trials

In February 2017, BBC News broadcast a report by Matt McGrath (reproduced by GMWatch) regarding the approval by the government of growing GM wheat in the UK. Several GM trials of crops have taken place in the UK over the past 20 years, often attracting protesters who have attempted to destroy the plants. Even when trials managed to avoid disruption, they were not always scientifically successful. This latest effort aims to see if the spectacular gains in productivity of 20-40% in GM wheat grown in the greenhouse can be reproduced in the open air.

Last Autumn, the scientists at Rothamsted Research submitted an application to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). After an independent risk assessment and  public consultation, permission was granted.

The Rothamsted team, working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Essex and Lancaster University, believes genetic modification enables the wheat to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently, thus converting more sunlight and CO2 into grain. Dr Malcolm Hawkesford from Rothamsted told BBC News the plants grew bigger in a greenhouse because of an increased level of photosynthesis. However, replicating the gains under different conditions will not be easy. And there are serious doubts about the data: some genetic engineers have been in touch with GMWatch to warn  that the claim of a 40% yield boost for this GM wheat is almost certainly either not true or a phenomenon that is unlikely to be replicated in farmers' fields.

But do we need more wheat? According to, the forecast wheat surplus worldwide just keeps getting bigger and bigger and wheat prices are set to fall to 15-year lows in 2016-17. So why do the genetic engineers at Rothamsted Research think it’s a good idea to genetically engineer wheat to use sunlight more efficiently and give higher yields? Researchers say that, with a rapidly growing global population, food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the demand.

The counter-arguments

But opponents see all this from a different perspective: people aren't starving because photosynthesis isn't efficient enough; people are starving because they are poor and funding targeted at techno-fixes like GM wheat could make a real difference if it was spent on measures like waste reduction and poverty eradication. They see responsible, fair production and sustainability as a better way of feeding the world. This is why around 30 green organisations objected to the plan, also pointing to concerns about the potential for the GM wheat to escape into the wild, as has repeatedly happened in the US. Now campaigners can only watch as the trial is launched.

Another concern is that the go-ahead for the new trial signals a different approach to GM as the UK faces up to Brexit. Farming minister George Eustace said in a written statement that as part of the preparations for EU exit, the government is considering possible future arrangements for the regulation of genetically modified organisms.


Genetic Engineering

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