Jun 30 2015

Lessons From GM Wheat Failure

So-called “whiffy wheat” was genetically modified to release a pheromone that repels aphids. The obvious purpose of this modification was to reduce pests without the need for insecticides, and thereby reduce insecticide use.

The trait worked well in the lab. The wheat released sufficient amounts of a warning pheromone that aphids release when attacked. The pheromone both warns aphids to stay away, and also attracts predators, such as a parasitic wasp. The pheromone was derived from the peppermint plant.

The laboratory success meant the wheat was ready for field trials where the GM crop is put to the test in close to real world conditions. The results of those field trials were just published, and unfortunately they showed that the new trait essentially didn’t work – the aphids were not significantly decreased compared to controls, nor was yield increased.

The scientists discuss a few possible reasons for the failure. One is that during the field trials, cold wet summers made for low baseline levels of aphids, below the threshold where fields would normally be sprayed. There was therefore not much room for improvement, but still if the trait worked it should have been evident.

They also report that the aphids demonstrated habituation in the lab, meaning they were less effected by the pheromone over time. Finally the scientists speculate that the failure may be due to the timing of release. When aphids are attacked they release the pheromone in a burst. The wheat, however, released it in a slow and continuous manner. Perhaps they have to engineer the wheat to release the pheromone in larger amounts in a short period of time.

The researchers believe that this approach, using pheromones to repel insects and/or attract natural predators, has promise. This specific application needs to go back to the drawing board, however.

What is more interesting than the study itself is how different people responded to it. Scientist reacting with statements to the effect that negative results are still results, we need to accept the data even if it is not what we want, and now we can take what we learned and move forward.

Dr. Toby Bruce, first author on the study, is quoted as saying:

“This trial has ended up yielding more questions than answers, but that means we have more work to do to understand the insect-plant interaction and to better mimic what happens in nature.”

Anti-GMO activists, however, are using this one failure of one GM variety as if it represents the failure of the entire concept of genetic modification. The same BBC article quotes Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, as saying:

“The waste of over £1m of public funding on a trial confirms the simple fact that when GM tries to outwit nature, nature adapts in response.”

That is interesting the O’Neill is concerned about the waste of public funding, because, as Nature reports:

The protests did not disrupt the research, but making the site secure added around £1.8 million (US$2.8 million) to the study’s research cost of £732,000.

Protests from groups like GM Freeze, who have vandalized field trials of GM crops, cost more than twice as much because of needed security than the trial itself. It’s more than a bit disingenuous to complain about the cost of such trials now. She goes on to say:

 “The truth is that nature is just too complex for the simplistic thinking behind GM.

“Meanwhile, we are crying out for investment in proven solutions like integrated pest management, companion cropping, conventional plant breeding, and novel chemistry.

Sure, nature is complex and adaptive. That is a inherent challenge of all agriculture, which in itself is inherently “unnatural.” She is drawing a false dichotomy, however, between the methods she mentions and GM technology – GM is just one method that can be successfully incorporated into things like integrated pest management.

Further, methods that are ideologically preferred by organic growers and anti-GM activists are themselves susceptible to the same limitation, the complexity of the ecosystem and the tendency for nature to adapt. They do not magically make these problems disappear.

I do have to wonder what the attitude of those like O’Neil would be toward a pest management system that includes spraying wheat with a natural pheromone derived from the peppermint plant that repels aphids, attracts natural predators, and thereby reduces the need for pesticide. I doubt they would be decrying this approach as overly simplistic and be calling to abandon the entire technology.


There are several lessons from this latest episode in the battle over GMO.  One is that there is a real price tag attached to the vandalism used by some anti-GM activists. In this case adding £1.8 million to a field trial that would otherwise have cost only £732,000.

This is a common tactic employed by many anti-science activists – creating a problem and then using that very problem they create as an argument against the science they oppose.

A second lesson is that GM scientists appear to be doing honest science, at least in this case. They genuinely want to find solutions that work, and if field trials are negative, they publish the negative results and move on. This is not a small point, as anti-science rhetoric is often tinged with conspiracy thinking, and the results of positive studies are often dismissed as fraud (without any evidence).

Finally, this is further evidence that the anti-GMO crowd do not have a coherent position. Their arguments against GMO largely come down to “it ain’t natural.” They also create a straw man comprising a false dichotomy between GM technology and other agricultural methods.

There is general agreement that sustainable methods of agriculture are needed, and that some form of integrated pest management is best. Nature is complex and adaptive, and therefore if we are going to try to squeeze as much food production out of as few resources as possible, in a sustainable way, we need to use a variety of techniques and technologies.

GM can be one of those technologies. It is not a panacea, but it has certain advantages over other methods. We should be using the best options available in a rational and evidence-based way.

Anti-GMO activism, however, is based on ideology, not evidence or reason.

This is usually the point at which many of those who are anti-GMO would state that the “real” reason they oppose GMO is because they are against corporate power, patents, etc. If that is the case, then you are fighting the wrong battle. As I and others have pointed out, your problem is not with GM technology but with regulations.

I would also point out that many of the anti-corporate talking points are simply false. They are based on misinformation and propaganda, so if you are going to take that position definitely make sure you have your facts right. (For example, Monsanto does not sue farmers for seeds blown onto their land, they do not market terminator seeds, and GM crops have not caused suicides in India.)

I do not know if this approach, using pheromones to repel pests, will pan out as a useful strategy. Neither do the scientists, or the anti-GMO activists. It is an interesting concept, and it seems to me is sufficiently reasonable to warrant the relatively small amount of investment to do the research. This kind of research may also yield unanticipated benefits. Let’s do the science and find out.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Lessons From GM Wheat Failure”

  1. MaryMon 30 Jun 2015 at 10:30 am

    Nobody is holding the activists to the claims they made. They said this wheat would destroy the British wheat industry.

    ‘We need solutions that work with nature rather than against it, such as predator strips and companion planting – all of which have been used for generations,’ she says, adding that contamination of non-GM crops would destroy Britain’s valuable wheat export market.


    It did not destroy the wheat market.

  2. NotAMarsupialon 30 Jun 2015 at 11:26 am

    In fairness to the author of that article, none of the test crop made it’s way into any export wheat so it wound up being a moot point. If it had, then the importing country would quite possibly have rejected it given that many countries do not allow GM food supply to be imported. I don’t think her concern is completely unreasonable (even if she went full doomsday saying the market would be “destroyed” rather than just harmed). Rather, I think the import laws that restrict GM usage regardless of the testing each individual food product has undergone are completely unreasonable and should be addressed separately.

  3. bendon 30 Jun 2015 at 12:03 pm

    I read Kevin Folta saying that this was not a failed experiment because we have increased our knowledge of how nature works; the only failure in science results from poorly designed and executed experiments. I can’t agree 100% with Prof. Folta on this. It would have been a great breakthrough to have aphid resistant wheat and you can’t spin the results of this experiment as anything but disappointing.
    But it is an invaluable demonstration of the premium that science and technology place on efficacy. How many times have you heard anti-GMO advocates say something like, “GMOs don’t work. Monsanto is forcing farmers to buy seeds that actually decrease yield!” The whiffy wheat failure shows that robust scientific tests in both lab and field are employed to verify any advantage to the developed strains. Science is honest and it owns up when it doesn’t deliver. The GM crops on market are there precisely because they do.

  4. RNAworldon 30 Jun 2015 at 12:30 pm

    In my mind this isn’t any different than testing a new drug that shows promise in the lab. Many pharmacologic agents won’t pan out in clinical trials, but that just means continue testing other promising agents. Some of them do end up being major advances. I think that GMO should have the same expectations. There are likely to be ones that look good in the lab that don’t live up to their desired potential in the real world, but based on the very nature of being genetically modified, there would have to be some genetic alterations that would demonstrate vast improvements in the characteristic of interest. After all, nature has been doing this through evolution for hundreds of millions of years. In principle it should be possible to do better on vastly shorter time scales.

  5. MaryMon 30 Jun 2015 at 12:47 pm

    @NotAMarsupial: This was just one of the claims made by many of the hair-afire bridage, and the scientists made it clear that this was not going to happen before because appropriate strategies were in place.

    An asteroid could hit the wheat field too, but that doesn’t make it a legit claim.

  6. BBBlueon 30 Jun 2015 at 11:21 pm

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Rothamsted ag research station in the U.K. is similar to our own USDA ARS and ag research programs at land-grant institutions. Their mandate is to develop information and sustainable technologies that will benefit all. This project was certainly consistent with that goal.

    As with all research, there is no guaranteed payoff, and those who complain about public funds being spent on this project don’t realize the chilling effect that has on research in general. More than ever before, ag researchers are having to stick their finger in the wind to calculate public perception and politics before writing proposals.

  7. delphi_oteon 01 Jul 2015 at 9:30 am

    A fair criticism of this research is that they didn’t have robust enough trials before going to field studies. Field trials are very expensive. Moving forward, we should do better basic science before jumping to test our studies in the field. Too much hype and excitement, not enough discipline.

    Spend a little more time in the greenhouse, folks.

  8. BBBlueon 01 Jul 2015 at 11:01 am


    As one who is involved in ag field research, it’s difficult to move too quickly to field studies unless there are genuine safety issues in play. Greenhouse studies are often a poor indicator for success in an ag setting. That is particularly the case when studying the commercial potential for pheromone strategies.

    16 X 6-meter square plots is certainly not scaling up too large too soon and “Permission for the trials was granted in Sept 2011 by Defra (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) after an assessment of the risks to human health and the environment, a period of public consultation and advice from ACRE (the Advisory Committee on Releases in the Environment).”

    No, I don’t think that is a fair criticism in this case.

  9. BillyJoe7on 01 Jul 2015 at 5:46 pm


    Why did you bend “this was not a failed experiment” to “this was not a disappointing result”?

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