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agriculture

This New Super Crop Could Change the Way We Grow Wheat

British researchers claim the new GM wheat crop can photosynthesise more efficiently to produce higher yields.

by Daisy Meager
02 February 2017, 1:12pm

Photo via Flickr user Susanne Nilsson

Figuring out how to feed our growing global population sustainably is no easy task. To meet the ever-increasing demand for food, possible solutions have been as varied as consuming algae and downing cricket milkshakes to making cities more bee-friendly.

And now, scientists at the Rothamsted Research centre in Hertfordshire have been given the go-ahead by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) to trial a new, radical, genetically modified (GM) crop that could change the way the world grows wheat.

The GM wheat, which has previously been trialled in greenhouses, produces higher yields as a result of more efficient photosynthesising—the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy to grow. Researchers from Rothamsted, in conjunction with scientists from the University of Essex and Lancaster University, have reported up to 40 percent increase in yield with the new crop.

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The idea of increasing crop yield by engineering plants to photosynthesise more effectively is not new, but past studies have focused on tobacco plants rather than cereal crops because they're easier to work with. Many of these experiments also took place under lab conditions. The new Rothamsted field trial, however, will determine how the GM wheat crop stands up to real environment conditions outside of a controlled greenhouse climate.

If successful, the experiment could have huge implications for the way we currently grow food. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, wheat is one of the world's most widely grown crops. Global production last year reached 758.1 million tonnes, accounting for nearly a third of all cereal crop output. The demand for wheat is expected to rise by 60 percent by 2050.

Speaking to MUNCHIES, Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, lead scientist on the field trial and head of plant biology and crop science at Rothamsted Research, explained the impact the GM crop could have on global food security.

He said: "Clearly, a step improvement in yields has to be a positive contributor to food production and food security. Over and above this is the potential improvement in efficiency of use of scarce and valuable resources that would include water, fertiliser, and even land. This is a positive contributor to minimising negative impacts of agriculture on the environment."

But not everyone's happy about the trial. The development and growth of GM plants is heavily criticised by agriculture campaign groups for harming the environment and having the potential to damage native crop breeds through field cross-pollination. We spoke to Peter Melchett, director of policy at food and farming charity the Soil Association, about the possible negative side effects of the Rothamsted field trial.

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Melchett told MUNCHIES: "We do not believe that this trial should go ahead. It is vital that the trial crop does not escape from the trial site given the inclusion of antibiotic resistance and herbicide tolerance genes, but that is exactly what has happened on multiple occasions with GM wheat trials elsewhere. If that happens here it will threaten the growing use of UK wheat in British bread."

But with a green light from Defra, the Rothamsted field experiment is set to go full steam ahead this year.