Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Aphid Resistant GM Wheat

The Rothamsted Institute has frequently been in the news in recent weeks over their trials of a new genetically modified strain of wheat. This particular genetic modification splices genes from other plants, such as mint, hops or apples, which naturally produce an odour which simulates that released by aphids when distressed or under attack. This phenomenon has evolved in some plants as a natural defence as aphids that would otherwise attack the plant detect the odour and avoid the host plants.

The Rothamsted trial represents a change in perspective of genetic modification and the Institute has been hard at work persuading us of the benefits it could bring to the world. Rothamsted is government owned and is not a commercial organisation therefore it is not motivated by profit in the same way as the giant agribusiness developers but by advancing science and technology. They are not improving resistance to environmentally damaging proprietary herbicides and pesticides to allow more to be sprayed on the crops. They are not making Frankenfoods, for example splicing glowworm DNA to make glow-in-the-dark bread (think how useful that would be). All they are doing is enhancing one plant with characteristics from another.
This is not that far removed from conventional plant breeding or hybridisation. We wouldn't be able to feed all seven billion people in the world without innovative hybrids that we currently use to improve yields. Furthermore, if you compare our common vegetables, such as cabbages, with their wild relatives they are almost unrecognisable, changing through centuries of cross breeding for favourable characteristics such as yield, flavour and ability to store once harvested.

The Rothamsted wheat is not much more than an acceleration of this process and, with a constantly growing world population, we do need to improve food security.

With arguments like this, perhaps there is a place for certain types of genetically modified crops. But if we stop the blanket ban and start accepting the need for some GMOs where do we stop? Is it the case that if we open the door on one, we open the flood gates on all? The old argument that we must put people first will be trotted out by anyone who stands to gain.

Surprisingly, the chink in the argument comes from China, where trials have been undertaken on GM cotton, which has a bacterial pesticide. They found that the pest control effect went beyond the crop into neighbouring non-GMO crops. The uncontrolled spread of GMOs is one of the biggest concerns about them but this is something different. The Chinese trial showed that natural predators to pests, such as ladybirds,spiders and lacewings, increased in number as a result of the GM crops, which resulted in protection of neighbouring crops. This is an argument also put forward by the scientists at Rothamsted.

We should, in my opinion, turn this finding on its head. Since this ability to give off a signal to deter pests and attract their predators extends to the area beyond the plant, we should surround our fields with those plants rather than genetically modifying crops. For example, planting mint around our wheat fields. To be at its most effective, field sizes may need reduced but this has wider benefits. This concept of sympathetic or companion planting is not new: it is common in organic agriculture.

Related links:
Correspondence between Rothamsted and campaign group, Take the Flour Back: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jun/01/letter-take-flour-back-rothamsted
GM crops 'aid plant neighbours': http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18424557

Related Posts:
Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World: http://ecowarriorme.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/can-organic-agriculture-feed-world.html

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