It’s exciting, therefore, to learn that in a recent UK glasshouse trial a GM wheat crop has yielded 40% more than conventional wheat. The trick with this GM wheat, apparently, is the introduction of genes from stiff brome that are better at assimilating carbon dioxide than conventional wheat. This has led to a big jump in crop biomass.
But it would be as well to treat these glasshouse results with caution. A recent trial of GM wheat at Rothamsted that repelled aphid attack under greenhouse conditions (by introducing a gene into the wheat that produced a smell that aphids give off as a warning if they are under attack) didn’t work under field conditions.
That said, if GM “stiff brome” wheat does turn out to yield 40% more than conventional wheat it is fair to say that UK farmers, myself among them, will be lining up to grow the crop. It is certainly about time we saw wheat yields start to rise again, and perhaps it is the long and often irrational suppression of GM technology, particularly in the EU, that has prevented it.
When I started farming in the 1980s it was taken as a given that wheat yields would rise significantly, if not year on year, then certainly over a period of a decade. Indeed every arable farmer would pore over the AHDB recommended list of wheat varieties hot off the press each year. And those promised yield increases often did indeed deliver in the field when these new varieties were grown. I remember the great excitement in 1984 of harvesting more than three tonnes of wheat as an average yield – an average I still struggle to beat 32 years later.
Over those following three decades the promise of increased yields has continued. I’ve lost count of the number of “improved” wheat varieties I’ve bought, the “better” sprays I’ve invested in, and the “precision” farming kit that I’ve been talked into buying. But all that outlay has delivered me very little in terms of improved yields.
No doubt trialing the “stiff brome” GM wheat will prove controversial. The “aphid resistant” wheat had to be protected by a high fence to keep protesters out and had to be policed to the extent that the whole trial cost nearly £3 million.
I can understand the protestors’ anxiety. In an ideal world we wouldn’t be taking genes from a nuisance grass plant and introducing them into a wheat plant with no certainty that we are not creating “Frankenstein food.” But the precautionary principle can only be justified up to a point. Millions of acres of GM crops are now being grown all around the globe with little or no proven ill effects, and millions of tonnes of those GM crops pour into the EU each year to be fed to our livestock. And putting fewer acres under the plough would be of massive benefit to thousands of species currently threatened with extinction by an ever expanding agricultural footprint.
A fast growing human global population combined with a stubborn refusal of conventional crops to increase yields is a crisis in the making. We have to give GM a go.