Genetically modified 'super-wheat' will be grown in the UK after trial is given the go-ahead despite fears of contamination


Open field trials of a genetically modified ‘super wheat’ have been approved by ministers, despite fears it will contaminate other crops.

The planting in Hertfordshire, which will be surrounded by a steel fence to keep out protesters, will start in spring.

Scientists claim the wheat is able to dramatically increase the yield of grains.

But the technology is controversial. American farmers have turned their backs on planting GM wheat for fear it will be rejected by shoppers.

Critics fear British wheat sales and exports will suffer if crops here are contaminated with genes from the GM plants.

The wheat has been genetically engineered so that, in theory, it can use sunlight more efficiently. Genes from a wild plant called stiff brome have been inserted.

The process also added an antibiotic marker gene and genes giving resistance to some weedkillers.

Tests in greenhouses at Rothamsted Research have boosted yields by up to 40 per cent. The field trials will determine whether this can be replicated in open air.

It is not the first GM wheat to be tested at the site. British researchers took five years to develop a crop that gave off chemicals supposed to deter insect pests, but the process did not work in field trials.

More than £3million of public money was spent on the trials and associated security measures.

Trials on GM wheat varieties in the US have led to some so-called escapes, creating the risk of contaminating wild plants and commercial crops.

GM Freeze, representing 30 organisations, had called on ministers to refuse permission for the wheat trial.

However, the Government has made clear it is keen to promote GM farming.

Liz O’Neill of GM Freeze said: ‘We raised a number of technical concerns about the application itself and highlighted the potential for GM wheat to escape into the wild, as has happened repeatedly with GM wheat trials in the US.’

Wheat varieties which were modified to make them resistant to weedkillers have been discovered growing outside field trials in the US on three separate occasions in recent years.

Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, which supports organic farming, said: ‘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.

‘The claimed potential gains from this trial are achievable through other means and there is simply no market for the trial’s eventual end product.’

The trials, which are jointly funded by the British and US governments, have been approved by the food and farming department, Defra.

The Rothamsted team, with researchers from Lancaster and Essex universities, says modified wheat carries out photosynthesis – the use of sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen – more efficiently, resulting in more grain.

Rothamsted’s Dr Malcolm Hawkesford said the trial would assess the plants’ ability to ‘produce more using the same resources and land area as their non-GM counterparts’.

He added: ‘These field trials are the only way to assess the viability of a solution that can bring economic benefits to farmers, returns to the UK taxpayer from the long-term investment in this research, benefits to the UK economy … and the environment in general.’

Essex University’s Professor Christine Raines said: ‘To date photosynthesis has not been used to select for high yielding crops … and represents an unexploited opportunity.’


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