Feb 07 2017
Right now there are no genetically modified (GM) cultivars of wheat that are approved and on the market, so essentially there is no GM wheat. Wheat is an important staple crop responsible for about 21% of total calories consumed by humans in the world. Improving net yields of wheat could therefore have important impacts on our food production.
Over the last century agricultural experts have used conventional breeding, including hybrids, to increase yields of major crops. Apparently conventional breeding is running up against diminishing returns, and some believe we are at or approaching the limit of wheat yield with conventional techniques.
However, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn sunlight into biomass, is an unexploited strategy. Researchers are now applying for field trials of a GM variety of wheat that incorporates genes from a closely related grass, the stiff brome.
Professor Christine Raines, Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex and principal investigator for this research project, described the current modification:
“In this project we have genetically modified wheat plants to increase the efficiency of the conversion of energy from sunlight into biomass. We have shown that these plants carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in glasshouse conditions. One of the steps in photosynthesis shown to limit this process is carried out by the enzyme. sedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase). We have engineered GM wheat plants to produce increased levels of SBPase by introducing an SPBase gene from Brachypodium distachyon (common name stiff brome), a plant species related to wheat and used as a model in laboratory experiments.”
The team engineered two varieties of wheat, one with two extra copies of the SBPase gene, and one with six extra copies. According to the BBC, in greenhouse experiments these cultivars increased grain yield by 20-40%, which is a huge increase. The New Scientist reports that the increase was 15-20%, which is also highly significant. Neither report cited a reference, and I looked on the Rothamsted site but could not find a specific number. (I will keep digging as time allows.) Even taking the lowest number of 15%, that would be a massive increase in wheat yields. If breeders develop a wheat cultivar with a 1% increase in yields, that is considered significant.
The scientists report that in order to meet the needs of a growing population we will need to increase our food production by 40% in the next 20 years, and by 70% by 2050. Unless populations start leveling off, we will need to continue to increase food production from there.
We are already close to full use of available arable land. There is no unused farmland out there for humans to expand into. We could continue to cut down forests and transform natural ecosystems into farmland, but that would have a significant negative impact on remaining ecosystems.
The best option is to increase yield from existing land. If we could increase yields enough we could even theoretically reduce our need for land. There are other inputs as well, such as water and fertilizer, and developing crops that need fewer inputs would also be a huge boon to the environment.
We also have to keep in mind that if we are going to increase our food production by 40% in 20 years we have to start developing those cultivars today.
With all this in mind, developing a GM wheat with increased yields and decreased inputs would be highly beneficial, both to food security and to the environment. This particular GM wheat is being developed by a consortium of universities and Rothamsted Research. The research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership Consortium.
The source gene for the GM wheat is a closely related grass, so this gene is already out there in the wild.
Response of the Anti-GM Activists
I reviewed the nature, funding, and utility of this particular GM cultivar to make a point – all the usual objections of the anti-GMO crowd are not relevant. There is no “frankenfood”, no evil corporations, and no pesticide issues. Any reasonable assessment indicates that this GM wheat would be a benefit to the environment.
But anti-GMO activists do not make rational assessments on a case-by-base basis. They are against the very concept of genetic modification and will therefore find some reason to oppose any GM product, no matter how tenuous or ridiculous their argument.
The BBC summarized opposition:
Around 30 green organisations lodged objections to the plan, pointing to concerns about the potential for the GM wheat to escape into the wild, as has repeatedly happened in the US. Campaigners say they are “disappointed” that the trial is now going ahead.
“People aren’t starving because photosynthesis isn’t efficient enough; people are starving because they are poor,” said Liz O’Neill from GM Freeze.
“Techno-fixes like GM wheat suck up public funding that could make a real difference if it was spent on systemic solutions like waste reduction and poverty eradication. Then we could all enjoy food that is produced responsibly, fairly and sustainably.”
“According to agrimoney.com, “The forecast world wheat surplus just keeps getting bigger and bigger” and “Wheat prices are set to fall to 15-year lows in 2016-17”. It is therefore mind-boggling as to why the genetic engineers at Rothamsted Research think it’s a good idea to genetically engineer wheat to use sunlight more efficiently and give higher yields. The last thing the world and farmers need is yet more wheat.
The idea that this GM wheat might get out into the wild is pure fearmongering. First, the gene is already out there in wild grasses. Wheat has a heavy grain and short duration where it is fertile, and so being spread beyond the field is easy to control.
But even if the GM wheat did get out “into the wild,” so what? This is wheat. It’s just another grass. What do they think is going to happen? Also, crops are inherently frail. They could never compete against wild weeds. This is a complete non-issue.
Their core claim that we do not need to grow more wheat is just ridiculous. It really showcases how irrationally anti-GMO these “green” organizations are. They entirely miss the point that we need to increase yields now in preparation for increased food needs in the next 20 to 40 years. They just ignore this point.
Further, the notion that all we have to do is eradicate world poverty and eliminate food waste is completely devoid of logic, and even common sense. These are, as we say, non-trivial problems. Do they really think that they could eliminate world poverty with the money being spent on these wheat field trials, or even if we combined all GM research together? Not even close.
Of course we need to address poverty, food distribution, and food waste as serious problems, but these problems are not going away anytime soon.
This argument also completely ignores the point that improved yield reduces pressure on land use and farming inputs.
Anti-GMO activists have vandalized field trials in the UK before. Failing to put forward a persuasive argument, they may resort to violence and destruction again. In case there was any doubt that they were anti-science, destroying scientific trials makes that pretty clear.
Of course I hope the field trials go forward so that we can see how these cultivars perform in real-world conditions. Hopefully they will work well and dramatically improve yields. Improving the efficiency of photosynthesis is an excellent strategy for using GM technology to improve crop yields, and may apply to many different crops.
These are the kinds of advances we will need to keep increasing our food production in an environmentally sustainable way. It is supremely ironic that “green” organizations oppose this environmentally friendly technology, but such is the way of irrational ideology.
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