The UK may be about to take a small step closer toward commercial production of high-yielding genetically modified wheat. Agricultural institution Rothamsted Research has applied for permission to run a new controlled field trial which, if successful, will test the growth performance of wheat that is specifically engineered to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently.
Food security is an increasingly pressing issue, with a 70% increase in food output required by 2050 to support the growing world population. This is a daunting task, especially since increasing food production conflicts with efforts to reduce environmental damage. To make matters worse, climate change may negatively impact crop growth. GM crops that generate bigger yields without using more land, water or other resources, have long been touted as a solution to the problem.
Until now, GM has mostly focused on reducing the impact of pests, rather than directly increasing yields. Rothamsted researchers are hoping they’ve found an answer to boosting yields of wheat by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis. This is the process where plants harness light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into the sugars required for plant growth. More plant growth means bigger yields and increased food production. The researchers focused on an enzyme called SBPase, which affects the rate at which plants convert carbon dioxide into sugar. The GM wheat has increased levels of SBPase, thanks to the introduction of two extra copies of the SBPase gene from a related plant species. The GM technology used is actually quite old-fashioned now – the extra SBPase gene is simply coated onto gold particles and fired into a wheat seed.
The GM wheat has already been shown to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in greenhouses, but this is unhelpful if it can’t be replicated in a more realistic field environment. If successful, high-yielding GM wheat could have a large positive impact on farming, the environment and food security. Despite this, criticism of GM crops remains rife. Although fears surrounding the dangers of GM crops remain unsubstantiated, campaign groups continue to argue against their use, and the UK has yet to approve any GM crop for commercial growth.
In the coming three months, the Government will decide whether this small-scale field trial can go ahead. However, more trials and regulatory hurdles would need to be passed to scale-up the project, and it could still be many years before GM wheat starts appearing on our supermarket shelves.