Trial of anti-aphid GM wheat awaits government green light

Field of wheat
Latest field test could begin in March 2012 after research centre creates crop by synthesising repellent gene found in mint. Hal Hodson reports

A controversial field trial of an experimental GM wheat will begin in March next year if government officials give the go-ahead for the crop to be planted.

One of the UK's leading plant research centres has applied for permission from the government to begin the trial of the GM crop, which is modified to resist attack by aphids. If approved, it would be only the third GM field trial running in Britain; the others, at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk and at Leeds University, are testing different varieties of GM potato. The project will require expensive 24hr security to prevent anti-GM protesters destroying the crop.

No GM crops are currently grown commercially in the UK, although GM varieties are grown extensively in other parts of the world – notably the US, South America, China and India.

The proposed trial is scheduled to run from March 2012 to October 2013. Anyone can submit an objection to the proposals up to 19 August this year.

Prof Maurice Moloney, the director of Rothamsted Research, which has applied for permission to conduct the trial, said the institute's chemical ecologists – who study the natural link between plants and pests – had discovered a way to prevent aphids landing on wheat and destroying it.

'When aphids are under stress, they release a pheromone that is a signal to other aphids to get out of the locality,' Moloney explained. 'It turns out that pathway exists in plants, for example in mint. When this pathway is activated, the aphids don't land on that plant.'

The chemical, known as (E)-beta-farnesene (EBF), is also found in beer because it occurs naturally in hops. Documentation submitted to the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) (the advisory body for the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs) lists over 300 varieties of plants in which EBF is known to occur naturally. Common mint is one of those plants.

The new genes are similar to the versions that appear in peppermint; however, they were not taken directly from another species but chemically synthesized to function like wheat genes. The GM variety also contains two other genes that originate in bacteria.

'Everybody thinks the wheat will now taste like mint, but it won't, because it's only a very small part of the plant,' Moloney said.

Dr Shawn Mcguire, a food security scientist at University of East Anglia who was not involved in the work, called GM wheat a 'fairly new development'. He said that because wheat is self-pollinating, the risk of cross-pollination was much smaller than in other GM crops.

'There are no wild relatives [of wheat] in this country, so it doesn't have a biodiversity risk in any sense. Wheat is far less promiscuous than oilseed rape and canola, so the issues of pollen flow and gene flow are less pronounced,' Mcguire said.

According to Mcguire, as the pheromone only affects aphids the risks are very different from those represented by more brutish GM crops such as Bt wheat. "I cannot think of major reasons for alarm over this," he said.

Rothamsted Research emphasised that the project is at the proposal stage and subject to approval. 'As required by law, a public notice appeared in today's Times and this initiates Acre's deliberations,' a statement said. 'We do not want to give the impression that we assume the trial will get the go-ahead without any question. We cannot be sure what Acre will or will not permit.'

Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, noted that the GM component of the wheat was already common in nature. 'Although these are test crops, which will never be eaten, EBF is produced by a variety of plants, such as peppermint and hops, so the product is something that people are commonly eating,' he said.

Moloney dismissed concerns over GM trials, particularly in reference to accidental cross-contamination of genetic material.

'The species barriers don't allow gene jumping to occur on anything other than an evolutionary timescale,' he said. 'If we get something from mint and we move that into wheat, it will not move into things other than wheat. If that could have happened without GM, then it would have already happened.'

Claire Oxborrow, a foods campaigner at Friends of the Earth, questioned the value of the research, saying that there was no demand for GM wheat. 'Given the fact that wheat is a staple crop, the development of GM varieties is particularly controversial. We're concerned that public money is being spent on research where there's no public acceptance or market,' she said.

This article is reproduced courtesy of the Guardian Environment Network

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