February 2, 2017 by Pat Thomas
Ignoring concerns that it could increase antibiotic resistance and contaminate existing crops, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has given the go-ahead for a new open air trial of GMO wheat.
Planting at Rothamsted’s premises in Harpenden, Hertfordshire will start in spring.
The so-called super wheat is a product of both genetic engineering and fanciful misleading PR.
The plant itself has been made using a rather haphazard GM technique that uses a so-called ‘gene gun’. In a process known as ‘biolistics’ the ‘gun’ is used to bombard plant cells with minute gold particles coated with DNA. Biolistics is a largely random process. Essentially scientists keep ‘shooting’, and producing random mutations in the plant cells, until they finally get the one they want.
In this case what they were looking for was a way to boost yields by boosting photosynthesis.
The last GM wheat trial in the UK, in 2012, was for strain of Cadenza wheat that kept pests (aphids) away by emitting an aroma they didn’t like, but which their predators (wasps) did. It failed.
To cover up the randomness of the process the PR spin describes the biolistics process as sprinkling the plant cells with gold dust. But make no mistake there is nothing magical about this process and claims that the wheat will be grown to ‘feed the world’s poor’ are patently false.
Indeed, the poor, who with the right political will could be eating their share of the excess calories that the world currently produces (enough to fed 14 billion people, or twice the current population) will have to wait a long time to dine on a meal of GM wheat.
Scientists at Rothamsted claim that trials in greenhouses seen yields increase by as much as 40%. But what works in a sterile scientific ‘greenhouse’, very often doesn’t work in nature where there are many more variables.
It’s worth remembering also that even should a trial in the field UK prove successful, there is no guarantee that the crops would grow successfully in a different climate/soil in a water stressed country in, for example, the Global South.
The letter raised several important technical objections about the process used for creating the GM wheat – and potential problems this can lead to including adding to antibiotic resistance and increasing the use of toxic herbicides. It looked at the potential for contamination and, crucially, it highlighted the fact that any potential gains from this trial are achievable through other means and there is simply no market for the trial’s eventual end product.
All of this was ignored by a government that blindly supports GMO technology and which has almost turned ignoring inconvenient evidence a badge of honour.
GM wheat has been around for some time in the US and Canada, but it has never been commercialised because there has never been a market for it. Open air trials in the US have resulted in GM wheat escaping into the wild and this is a genuine concern should planting become more widespread.
But the real issues about the GM wheat trial are perhaps best viewed in a global context of Brexit and the new regime in the US.
Although the UK government has always been pro-GM – being part of the European Union has ensured that GMO crops have not found the regulatory approval here that they have in the US.
Should the UK eventually leave the EU, no such constraints will exist. Furthermore the new US president, although opposed to international trade deals like TTIP and NAFTA, will undoubtedly impose similar terms in any trade deals made with the UK – in his words America’s interests must prevail.
Whether the UK will have the power to – or interest in – negotiating better terms remains to be seen.
The US, as a major producer of GMO crops, has a vested interest in seeing more GMOs eaten (by people and animals) in countries like the UK. It is also a major exporter of the technology (indeed the current wheat trial is jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)). There is no doubt that it would like to see more farms throughout Europe growing GMO crops and it will pursue this agenda aggressively..
These trials come at a time of major uncertainty, which is why the gold dust/fairy godmother PR around the wheat – encouraging us all to switch off and promising a magical solution to all our problems – is so dangerous.
UK citizens, when polled, remain opposed to GMOs. But we have yet to see the kind of uprising necessary to send an unambiguous message to politicians and regulators that says no to GMOs and yes to more sustainable agroecological methods of farming.
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