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GM wheat study approved to suck up UK public funding.

DisclaimerI am currently a student at the University of Nottingham, with an accepted place on the Doctoral Training Programme at Rothamsted Research (beginning October 2017).

Topics don’t come much more controversial than genetic modification/engineering, and recently Rothamsted Research has received the green light for a field trial to go ahead.

Plants have been genetically engineered to improve a variety of their characteristics such as durability, through drought tolerance or disease resistance, or even their nutritional value. Increasing yield and lowering costs. Altering the genetics of crops is not exactly a new practice. Farmers can, by repeatedly cross-pollinating plants, produce offspring with a desired combination of traits. This process can introduce many genes into the plant, as well as occasionally some with less desired traits [1].

While supporters of GM talk of increased yields, drought resistant crops, food security and reducing pesticide use; opponents of GM foods focus on possible dangers to ecosystems, food wastage and cite unknown effects to human health.

Rothamsted’s trial aims to test two genetically modified (GM) varieties of wheat, developed in collaboration with the University of Essex and Lancaster University, “designed” to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in the field and if this, in fact, translates into a higher yielding crop [2]. Early evidence, from glasshouse studies, suggest that by improving the efficiency by which energy in the form of light is converted to wheat biomass. The researchers observed a dramatic gain in productivity of ~20-40% in their GM wheat varieties grown in the greenhouse [3].

A limiting step in the photosynthetic process is carried out by an enzyme, sedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase). So to increase the efficiency, they have engineered GM wheat plants which produce increased levels of that enzyme. This has been achieved by introducing the gene for the enzyme from Stiff brome (Brachypodium distachyon), a related plant species to wheat commonly used as a model for laboratory experiments. They have produced two types of plants, one with a couple of extra copies of SBPase and the other with six extra copies of SBPase which are functional [2].

GM Freeze, along with around thirty other organisations, submitted a 14-page objection to Defra back in December, petitioning to disallow Rothamsted Research to carry out its open-air, field GM trial. Their document points to many of the common objections that anti-GM campaigners and/or the concerned public have about GM, and highlights some concerns specific to the trial itself. I will focus on the areas that interested me most but highly encourage that readers have a look at both the objecting document and the sections referenced therein from the paper submitted to Defra by Rothamsted.

Liz O’Neill of GM Freeze commented, We raised a number of technical concerns… But beyond all the technical detail, we believe that Rothamsted’s researchers have totally missed the point – what is the purpose of growing more wheat in the first place?”

“World food production already far exceeds the needs of generations to come but people still go hungry. Nobody is starving because of some fundamental flaw with photosynthesis; they are starving because they are poor.”

Techno-fixes like GM wheat suck up public funding that could make a real difference if it was spent on systemic solutions like waste reduction and poverty eradication.

Suggesting that Rothamsted’s researchers “totally missed the point” actually misses… well, the point. Space is limited, a growing population is going to use even more space leaving less for agriculture. It is, therefore, important to maximise the yield obtainable in the space that is currently allocated for agriculture [4]. 

Statistics from FAO show that the world does indeed currently produce enough food to feed even the predicted population in 2050. However, the FAO also states that an increase in food production is required. 

The current projected increase needed in world food production is ~40% in the next 20 years, and ~70% by 2050. These are believed to be achievable if there is “increased investment in research and development for sustained productivity growth, infrastructure institutional reforms, environmental services and sustainable resource management” [4].

Therefore investing in GM-based “techno-fixes” is a critical way forward, particularly for promoting the UK’s competitiveness in biotechnology (a win for the taxpayer). The UK’s plant science researchers are at the forefront of developing both scientific and technological advances which can make agriculture more efficient and sustainable.

However, Liz definitely has a point when it comes to food waste:

  • ~25% of crops are lost to pests and/or diseases [5].
  • ~37% of the harvest is lost before consumption in the developing world, owing to insufficient processing, storage and transport [6]. 
  • >1/4 of food available for consumption in the US is estimated to be lost from the point of retail onwards [6].

FAO acknowledge that simply increasing production will not likely be sufficient to achieve global food security. Realistically it will require enacting policies that enhance access to food, encouraging people to waste less food and fighting poverty, especially in rural areas, plus some effective safety net programmes.

However, Rothamsted’s researchers are not policy makers by night, and they’re definitely not saying that people are going hungry due to a flaw in photosynthesis. They’re full-time scientists, who selected the GM approach as there is extremely limited natural variation in photosynthesis [2]. According to Rothamsted, increases in photosynthetic efficiency observed via conventional breeding have been incredibly small, and much larger increases are considered necessary for the increase in yield. Alternative/more conventional methods may work for other traits, but Rothamsted and its partners chose to focus on photosynthesis.

The last objection to this field study that I want to cover is the idea that there is “no market for GM”. Pointing to a YouGov poll from 2014, see Figure 1, which suggests the public opinion in the UK is negative towards GM [7]. However, consumer surveys such as these, are carried out in situations where consumers are all too aware that their behaviour is being monitored.

Figure 1 – 2014 YouGov poll on GM acceptance. Shows that a sizeable portion (~30%) of people do not have a strong opinion either way! Image credit: YouGov

Apparently, because 4 in 10 adults taking this poll were against GM this means there is no market for GM? Perhaps true for GM markets among UK consumers, but in the US estimates suggest that as much as 80% of processed food may contain an ingredient from GM crops (including corn starch, canola oil, soybean oil, soy flour, soy lecithin) [8]. The global market value of biotech crops was US$15.3 billion in 2015, making up 34% of the ~US$45 billion global seed market [9].

An interesting review by Lucht that collates a great deal of information on the public acceptance of plant biotechnology and GM crops was published in the journal Viruses [10]. The author points out that consumers’ attitudes and behaviour are not always entirely logical, and only a minority of people go out of their way to avoid GM.

In my opinion finding mechanisms to reduce waste are essential (in fact my fourth-year project is somewhat looking into that). As is breaking down the social and economic barriers deeply rooted in our society that limits the access to food to particular groups. My main concerns surrounding GM are not the safety of the technology, but the possibility for large corporations, which do not answer to the general population directly, could hold monopolies over the GM crop market. Pricing out smaller farmers, or even just flat out preventing access to certain groups. Diversity is also a foreseeable issue if GM is not managed with this in mind, though there are already issues there with current farming practices. Scientists are aware and care about the impacts of their research on the environment despite what anti-GM campaigners may think.

Links Out:

GM Freeze Objection to Rothamsted’s open air trial – worth a read to gain a more detailed insight into the concerns of anti-GM campaigners.

Hunger Notes: Harmful Economic Systems – a little bit more information on how/why hunger is an economic issue.

[1] The Royal Society’s GMO Information Page – answer any basic question on GM.

[2] Rothamsted’s Q&A on their study – easier read than the full submission (Rothamsted’s Submission to Defra) and answers many concerns.

[3] BBC Article on the Rothamsted trial [Accessed 12/03/17]

[4] FAO: How to Feed the World in 2050 – facts and figures.

[5] FAO: Crop Prospects and Food Situation (Feb 2009)

[6] [Accessed 12/03/17]

[7] YouGov 2014 Poll

[8] Hallman, W. K. et al. (2003). Publication number RR- 1003-004. New Brunswick, New Jersey; Food Policy Institute, Cook College, Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey.

[9] ISAAA: Pocket K No. 16: Biotech highlights in 2015. [Accessed 12/03/17]

[10] Lucht, J. M. (2015).Viruses, 7(8), 4254–4281.



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