In the next few weeks a GM wheat trial will be sown in Hertfordshire by Rothamsted Research – the first such UK GM trial in over a decade – against a background of market rejection of GM wheat which has curtailed commercial development and planting in major wheat producing countries around the world.
The GM wheat is modified to produce an aphid alarm pheromone which Rothamsted hopes will repel aphids from the crop whilst attracting aphid predators into the crop.
The £1.28 million in grants used for Rothamsted’s trial comes from UK tax payers but the patents on the genes used to modify the wheat are held by US academics whom stand to gain if the GM traits ever gets commercial approval.
This trial is, I believe, both irrelevant and irresponsible.
Irrelevant because spring wheat is just 1% of the UK wheat crop; aphids are rarely pose a financial risk in spring wheat; and if aphid numbers do reach the economic threshold for remedial action I already have three courses of action open to me – insecticides, seed treatments, and adapting farming practice to provide habitate for beneficial aphid predators.
Irresponsible because there are many more pressing areas of scarce research funding that could deliver the tools we farmers need to meet the twin challenges of feeding an increasing population from diminishing resources whilst enhancing the environment; and because this trial increases public antagonism towards farmers and again brings into question the farmer’s role as custodian of the countryside.
My specific concerns are:
- Rothamsted’s GM trial is irrelevant because it is for a spring wheat which only accounts for 1% of the UK crop.
- Serious aphid infestations on spring wheat are infrequent, control costs are low (£5/hectare) and aphid outbreaks are often controlled naturally by predators and parasitoids.
- Other pests, such as orange blossom midge, will not be affected by the GM trait and will still therefore need to be controlled using insecticide if their populations breach the economic damage threshold.
- Some research has already cast doubt on the durability of the GM pheromone approach. Aphids may become habituated to the pheromone signal in a few generations and ignore it, rendering this technology useless. More on the research at www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1001539107
- I would suggest that there is a strong likelihood that if the GM wheat displaces aphids from one crop and if applied on a commercial scale then there could be implications for surrounding crops – and also for uncropped areas that are of particular benefit to flora and fauna.
- To be competitive with other forms of aphid control in spring wheat – chemical and biological – the GM wheat seed price would have carry a low price premium compared to non-GM wheat.
- Thus it is very hard to see how GM spring wheat will ever gain sufficient market share either to give a return on taxpayers investment or to be profitable for UK commercial seed breeders.
- I have very real concerns about who will cover liability if contamination of the food chain or environment should occur.
- GM winter wheat would instantaneously place a additional financial burden on arable farmers to prevent contamination of the food chain and the environment; and to ensure tracebility from seed to plate.
- I would question whether this is the best use of £1.28m of scarce agricultural research funding at a time when arable farmers and society are making more pressing demands on our publically funded research establishments.
I am therefore forced to conclude that the Rothamsted GM wheat trial is either really aimed for some other market where spring wheat holds a larger market share, perhaps North America; that the real long-term intention is to genetically modify winter wheat for the UK and EU market; that this trial probably plays a significant role in the BBSRC’s the recent decision to grant a favourable five year funding settlement on Rothamsted; and that the trial plays a political role in ensuring that GM crops and GM research stays in the media limelight.
I conclude that Rothamsted needs to explain why the countryside is being used as an open air laboratory at our expense to trial a crop that offers no financial advantages for UK farmers or taxpayers; and can only damage the credibility of UK farmers as guardians of the countryside and food quality.
In short, this crop won’t help me feed my family, let alone help farmers feed the world.