More GM wheat trials planned for Rothamsted Research in Harpenden

Wheat crop research. Photo courtesy of Prof Jon West, Rothamsted Research

Wheat crop research. Photo courtesy of Prof Jon West, Rothamsted Research - Credit: Rothamsted Research

Despite racking up a huge security bill the last time it grew genetically modified (GM) wheat, Harpenden scientists hope to conduct further tests with engineered cereal grain.

Professor Huw Jones in the GM wheat trial in September 2013

Professor Huw Jones in the GM wheat trial in September 2013 - Credit: Photo supplied

Rothamsted Research has asked for permission to carry out field trials using GM wheat plants, with the application currently under public consultation.

Its proposed project - a collaboration with researchers at the University of Essex and Lancaster University - was recently submitted to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for approval.

The centre wants to carry out field trials at its farm in the town next year and in 2018, to test whether modified wheat plants can carry out photosynthesis - converting light energy into plant biomass more efficiently – and whether this trait could result in a higher yielding crop.

The trial site in Harpenden is already completely surrounded by a 2.4m high chain-link fence, with locked double gates, to prevent the entry of wildlife and unauthorised people.

Rothamsted said that as it would be a controlled trial, “we need to ensure that rabbits, large animals and people do not wander into the field and damage the experiment.

“We hope that nobody will attempt to damage the experiment as the results of this trial could be very important in determining whether this type of technology works or not.”

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The agricultural research station, which has been operating for over 170 years, ran a trial with wheat genetically modified to resist aphids from 2012-13.

Results later showed that the crop did not, despite expectations, repel the pest.

And the cost of security measures needed to protect the controversial trial climbed to over £2 million, including fencing, in response to threats of vandalism and attempted criminal damage by anti-GM activists.

In this additional trial, Rothamsted wants to evaluate the performance of wheat which has been altered to produce increased levels of a particular enzyme – these plants have carried out photosynthesis more efficiently in glasshouse conditions but field research is now needed.

Rothamsted said:

• Researchers will determine the aboveground plant biomass and grain yield, measure the number of wheat ears, and the grain number and weight per ear.

• There is a projected need to increase world food production by 40 per cent in the next two decades. Wheat is one of the major grain crops worldwide, but yields have reached a plateau in recent years.

• The reason such trials are being conducted in this country is that the UK has “world-class plant scientists who are at the forefront of developing scientific and technological advances to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable”.

• Plants and seeds grown from the trial will not enter the food or feed chains. All material generated and used for the experiment will be destroyed at the end.

• The area for the proposed field trial, including controls and spacing, will cover 243 sq metres, comprising eight 1.8x6m plots planted with GM wheat, plus four 1.8mx6m plots of non-GM controls. There will also be a wheat pollen barrier surrounded by a 20m unplanted area.

• Public consultation on the proposed trial has begun, and more information is on DEFRA’s website.

Two years ago, the department gave Rothamsted the go-ahead to carry out GM trials with Camelina plants engineered to produce oils at its farm, until 2017.