Green light for another GM trial, growing wheat in the field, at 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

Opponents of genetically modified (GM) crops are disappointed after scientists in Harpenden were granted permission to carry out a field trial on cereal grain, despite objections.

Rothamsted Research in Harpenden

Rothamsted Research in Harpenden - Credit: Archant

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has approved an application from Rothamsted Research to test whether GM wheat plants are able to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in the field and whether this trait could result in a higher yielding crop.

However, campaign group GM Freeze, which opposes engineered food, crops and patents, together with 30 other organisations, demanded the application be refused.

GM Freeze is the umbrella campaign for a moratorium on GM in food and farming in the UK, and was objecting on behalf of groups including Mums Say No to GMOs, Gene Watch UK, the Real Bread campaign and the Soil Association.

Rothamsted submitted an application on November 3 last year for permission to carry out GM field trials on its farm in Harpenden between 2017 and 2019.

Local scientists, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Essex and Lancaster University, have developed wheat plants that can carry out photosynthesis more efficiently. For example, they convert light energy into plant biomass more efficiently.

The centre says this trait has the potential to result in higher yielding plants. The purpose of the now-approved trial is to evaluate the performance of the engineered plants in the field.

But GM Freeze, in its objection, said campaigners “do not believe this trial should go ahead. The information provided by the applicant is incomplete. The inclusion of antibiotic resistance and herbicide tolerance genes mean that it is vital the trial crop does not escape from the trial, but that is exactly what has happened on multiple occasions with GM wheat trials elsewhere.

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“The claimed potential gains from this trial are achievable through other means and there is simply no market for the trial’s eventual end product.”

GM Freeze said it was a “false premise that it is necessary to increase yield with GM crops. A toolbox of more sophisticated, and less risky, conventional methods for breeding wheat to increase yield is already available.”

Campaigners added that it was “inaccurate to say that increasing yield will feed the hungry. It is known that the global supply of food is already enough to feed 10 billion people. Instead we should be looking at distribution and waste management, not increased yields. There is no market for GM wheat.”

It pointed out that there had been “multiple escapes of GM wheat from field trials in the United States” which had led to an overhaul of regulations for such trials in that country.

Commenting on Rothamsted’s consent, Liz O’Neill, director of the umbrella campaign group, said: “GM Freeze and 30 other organisations submitted a detailed objection to this trial so we are disappointed but not surprised to hear that it is going ahead.

“We raised a number of technical concerns about the application itself and highlighted the potential for GM wheat to escape into the wild. 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?”

Rothamsted said that its risk assessment was reviewed by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which was “satisfied that all scientific issues raised by the public with respect to this application have been addressed”.

The centre said ensuring future food security was a “major challenge given the projected need to increase world food production by 40 per cent in the next 20 years and 70 per cent by 2050. Wheat is one of the major grain crops worldwide and provides approximately one-fifth of the total calories consumed globally”.

Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, lead scientist at the centre for this trial, said: “We will perform the proposed controlled experiment in our already established facilities here at Rothamsted Research. This trial will be a significant step forward as we will be able to assess in ‘real environmental conditions’ the potential of these plants to produce more using the same resources and land area as their non-GM counterparts.”