Rothamsted Research is granted permission by Defra to plant autumn-sown wheat as part of its GM field trial

14th Jun 2013

Rothamsted Research has been granted permission by Defra to extend its current GM wheat field trial to include additional autumn-sown cadenza wheat. Rothamsted scientists believe it would be advantageous to gain further data from their experiment, in wheat planted at a different time and under different weather conditions with different aphid populations. This will give us additional data under a more diverse range of environmental conditions.

Rothamsted therefore submitted on March 25th a request to Defra, which was assessed by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), and by members of the public through a 60-day consultation period. ACRE is satisfied that all scientific issues raised by the public with respect to this application have been addressed.

During this period and in addition to the formal consultation run by ACRE, Rothamsted Scientists have also spoken to and answered questions directly from the public, special interest and GM opposition groups, such as GMFreeze since they publicly announced their submission to Defra.

Because the UK’s temperate climate permits wheat plant growth during the winter, Cadenza wheat can be sown in either the autumn or the spring and both sowings are harvested in August/September. As such, the extension of the experiment will further increase the relevance to UK farmers and those in other temperate climates by covering a greater range environmental variability. This weather variability has been particularly evident in the UK in the past 12 months.

Research leader Professor John Picket said “With the trial up and running, it seems sensible to make this small adjustment. Autumn infestations of aphids are a real problem too, especially with the varied weather we are having. This additional data will add a lot of value to the overall investigation by testing our wheat plant under a more varied range of environmental conditions throughout the year and in accordance with the different times of the year farmer’s plant their wheat.”

The controlled experiment being conducted by scientists from Rothamsted Research combines modern genetic engineering with natural plant defenses to test whether aphid-repelling wheat works in the field.

Wheat is the most important UK crop with an annual value of about £1.2 billion. Currently a large proportion of UK wheat is treated with a broad spectrum of chemical insecticides to control cereal aphids, which reduce yields by sucking sap from plants and by transmitting barley yellow dwarf virus. Unfortunately, repeated use of insecticides often leads to aphids developing resistance, while killing other non-target insect species including the natural enemies of aphids, which itself could have further impacts on biodiversity.

Rothamsted Research scientists, who receive strategic funding from the UK Government through the Biotechnology and Biological sciences Research Council (BBSRC), have been seeking novel ecological solutions to overcome this problem in wheat. One approach has been to use an odour, or alarm pheromone, which aphids produce to alert one another to danger. This odour, (E)-β-farnesene, is also produced by some plants as a natural defense mechanism and not only repels aphids but also attracts the natural enemies of aphids, ladybirds for example. This work has been effective in the laboratory and Rothamsted scientists have already conducted the first field trial to investigate whether the GM plants work outside in the field, as well as in the laboratory.

The autumn sowing extension of the current field trial that Rothamsted Research got permission to conduct involves exactly the same GM lines and the experimental design as the current spring-sown experiment. The autumn extension to the trial will be sown in mid Sept and destroyed after 10-12 weeks in late Nov or late Dec depending on the weather.

Rothamsted Research Director, Professor Maurice Moloney said “we are very grateful to Defra for granting this extension, and to ACRE for their independent and thorough scientific scrutiny of our proposal. We worked hard last year to engage the public and listened to their views. The more data we can gather, the more evidence we will be able to obtain for Government and society to make decisions whether they wish to explore this next generation GM technology further”.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "BBSRC welcomes this important research to explore one approach to help solve the global challenge of producing food sustainably for a growing population, while minimising environmental effects. We look forward to results from this study, which will help provide answers about the potential of this type of GM technology and what benefits it could offer”. Professor Kell added: "The findings generated through this extension will add to the picture of how this technology compares to others. It is vital that future decisions are based on scientific evidence."

This filed trial is part of a five-year project funded by BBSRC and more information can be found at Rothamsted Research Wheat trial page.

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