GM wheat in the marketplace is still a long way off

THE GM wheat variety being trialled at Rothamsted will cost up to £10 million to get through the regulatory process, according to one of the scientists working on the trial.

Prof Huw Jones, of Rothamsted’s Centre for Crop Genetic Improvement, stressed the aphid resistant wheat variety was a still a long way from the marketplace.

“The cost of putting a new ‘event’ through the GM approval process is estimated at £7-10m so it will need the backing of a major sponsor,” he said.

“New GM crops are risk-assessed more stringently than any other food we have ever eaten. That is why it costs so much.”

The two-year trial is due to commence next spring at Rothamsted’s experimental farm at Harpenden, Hertfordshire, over 6,400sq.m, of which just 288sq.m will be planted with GM wheat.

Explaining the thinking behind the trial, Prof Jones said aphids were a ‘major pest’ which not only suck sugar reserves from wheat, but spread virus diseases.

He said controlling aphids with insecticides ‘may not be sustainable’ as insecticides can also affect other ‘non-pest species’, such as ladybirds, which are natural enemies of aphids, while aphids can become resistant to insecticides.

Alternative

“We are investigating an alternative approach using a pheromone (a volatile signal which acts at vanishingly low concentrations) made naturally by aphids and some plants to protect themselves,” he said.

“We have genetically altered wheat plants to give off this natural mode of defence and we have demonstrated in the laboratory it works to repel aphids. 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.”

Asked about possible environmental risks, he said wheat had been ‘forced to cross with couch grass’ in lab conditions, although he said this has never been observed in the wild.

“To avoid any chance of this, [Government advisory body] ACRE has required us to control couch grass in the trial and for 20 metres around,” he said.

Prof Jones stressed it will have to go through many hoops to reach the market.

He also acknowledged wheat is ‘genetically complex’, which is why the science of GM wheat is harder and is taking longer than in other crops.

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