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Rothamsted’s GM Wheat “Remodel” is High Risk Option

Immediate release (22 Nov 2011)

Calls to: Pete Riley 07903 341065

GM Freeze today described Rothamsted Research’s proposal to attempt to increase wheat yields using GM as a “high risk and potentially costly mistake”.

Rothamsted’s new five year science strategy, published last week, includes an aim to increase wheat yields to an astonishing 20 tonnes/hectare (from the current average 8.4 tonnes/hectare) in 20 years by “remodelling” the wheat genome. Rothamsted hopes to use theoretical genetic modifications to change the the way plants turn sunlight into energy by radically altering their photosynthetic biochemistry, [1] something that has never succeeded before. Indeed many believe it may prove impossible, and in 2009 the Royal Society described the idea of using GM to change photosynthetic metabolism in crops as “high risk”. [2]

Rothamsted also claims it will increase wheat yields by:

  • Us[ing] advanced technologies to mitigate losses through pests and diseases”.
  • Developing a better understanding of how soil and plant roots interact to deliver water and nutrients to plants.
  • Learning more about how genes interact with their environment, including how different types of wheat are likely to perform when the climate around them changes.

Rothamsted’s strategy is a reflection of the common claim that crop yields will need to increase by 70 – 100% by 2050 to feed a growing population. The intellectual basis for this claim has recently been exposed as an argument for maintaining the current political and production systems instead of seeking more sustainable change based on, for example, tackling food waste and making the food already produced more accessible. [3]

The strategy comes just after the announcement that staff at its three research sites will be cut from 427 to 350 in line with a direction from the BBSRC (a major funder) to cut staff costs by 20%. This will close three departments key to sustainable agriculture research (Plant and Invertebrate Ecology, Applied Crop Science and Plant Pathology and Microbiology). [4]

Prospect, the union for agricultural scientists, said, “The proposed restructuring of Rothamsted Research will severely weaken the UK’s ability to develop sustainable agricultural systems.” [4]

In September 2011 Rothamsted Research received Defra authorisation to conduct trials of a wheat genetically modified to emit an aphid alarm pheromone, which it hopes will cause aphids to drop off or take flight from the crop. [5]

Pete Riley, Campaign Director of GM Freeze, said:

Rothamsted Resarch places massive emphasis on genetic modification in its Research Strategy while cutting critical work in soil science and plant pathology. This will lead to even more investment in GM, already an outdated technology with only an outside chance of success. This is a high risk, and potentially costly, mistake.

Rothamsted is missing a huge opportunity to invest in research on agroecology. Such systems are more robust and able to cope with climate, pest and disease stresses better than industrial monocultures like GM because they work with natural systems instead of against them. Their inherent diversity gives them productive resilliance, including by providing rich, healthy soils habitats for pest predators.

Tackling the shocking amount of food wasted every year also provides a safe, sure means to feed people – and it’s far cheaper than wishful GM research – but is doesn’t suit the food industry so well as increased control over seeds through high tech patents and monopolies.

Suggesting a ‘remodel’ of the wheat genome suggests Rothamsted is treating food production like redesigning the family car rather than a part of complex biological systems. Everything we know about genetics teaches us it simply isn’t that easy. Why spend so much tax money on something so unlikely to deliver?

[1] Rothamsted Research. Where Knowledge Grows: Science strategy 2012 -2017.

See also “Object to trialling GM wheat in the UK” for more.

[2] Royal Society, 21 October 2009. Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture.

[3] Tomlinson I, 2011. “Doubling Food Production to Feed the 9 Billion: A critical perspective on a key discourse of food security in the UK”. Journal of Rural Studies.

[4] Prospect, press release 2 August 2011. “20% research cuts a blow to UK agriculture.”

[5] Defra. “Part B consents granted to release genetically modified organisms”.