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Is there a Future for GM Crops in the UK?

18 October 2011

It is a question that has been asked since the late 1990s and for much of that time the answer from the public, media and politicians appears to have been a firm: "No!" - But are things about to change?

Defra has just approved a two-year trial of aphid-resistant GM wheat at the Rothamsted Research institute, in Hertfordshire, UK. Could this be the turning point? An environmentally-friendly opportunity for farmers to address a costly problem associated with growing wheat? Or an unnecessary environmental risk? And a product the public never accept?

These questions and more were put to a team of panellists during a live debate via the Farmers Guardian website earlier this week. The debate was led by Farmers Guardian Political Editor Alistair Driver. Panellists included Huw Jones, one of the leading scientists working on Rothamsted’s GM wheat trial, Guy Smith, Essex farmer and NFU communications spokesman, Pete Riley, campaign director at GM Freeze, Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University.

When asked about how aphids impact on crops and how is best to deal with the problem Huw Jones said: "Wheat is the most important UK crop and aphids are a major pest which not only suck sugar reserves from crops but spread virus diseases. They are usually controlled by insecticides, but this approach may not be sustainable as insecticides can also affect non-target organisms such as ladybirds that are natural enemies of aphids and other non-pest insect species. Aphids also become resistant to insecticides.

Mr Jones continued: "We are investigating an alternative approach using a pheromone (a volatile signal that acts at vanishingly low concentrations) made naturally by aphids and some plants to protect themselves. The chemical is called E-ß –farnesene (EBF). We have genetically altered wheat plants to give off this natural mode of defense and we have demonstrated that it works to repel aphids in the laboratory. This field trial will test whether it will work under field conditions. This method not only helps to control aphids, but does so in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way without having to use pesticides."

Commenting on Defra's recent approval of a two-year trial of aphid-resistant GM wheat, Guy Smith said: "I have no problem with the trial but one question I would ask of politicians who fund the trial and give it consents - is this a good use of the limited UK R&D budget when polticians don't seem to want to allow the stuff to be grown?"

Speaking against GM wheat, Campaign Director at GM Freeze, Pete Riley added: "There are a number of reason why GM wheat is not a good idea. Firstly why is tax payers money being used to develop crops for which there is no public demand at present? Secondly , we need to get a much better understanding of plants genetics to enable us to investigate the potential changes in host plants caused by genetic engineering events which could have harmful effects. Thirdly we need to fund research into farming systems which provide many functions from pest control, to increased biodiversity above and below the ground, to soils able to absorb and retain moisture. Fourthly we need to develop traditional plant breeding and seed lots that are more diverse and better able to cope with unexpected events and move away from single variety monocultures."

Defra granted consent to Rothamsted Research to conduct a research trial on GM wheat in 2012 and 2013. The research is on wheat that has been genetically modified to resist aphids, which are a pest in wheat crops.

The Rothamsted Research application has been evaluated by the independent expert group the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment (ACRE). It is satisfied that the proposed trial will not result in any adverse effect on human health or the environment.

In line with ACRE’s advice, precautionary conditions have been attached to the statutory consent for the trial. These aim to ensure that no GM material from the trial will enter the food and feed chain.

Speaking on behalf of BBSRC, a commentator added: "As well as opening the possibility of using GM to solve the problem of aphid control, this trial will help us learn about GM as a technology, and could also inform conventional breeding for aphid resistance in crops. We are facing the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 and to do that we will need a variety of approaches. GM will not be the panacea, but it could be one among many approaches. The spend by BBSRC on this GM wheat project is £971K over 5 years, which is equivalent to 2 per cent of our spend on wheat research, less than 0.5 per cent of what we spend on crop research, and 0.05 per cent of BBSRC’s overall spend in this period."

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