UK scientists working to develop genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Herts are facing a problem — but it is not a problem with their research, rather it’s protestors potentially ruining their experiments. The team is working on a wheat that is genetically modified to deter aphids, and a group called Take the Flour Back has vowed to “decontaminate” the site unless the research is halted. The protestors hold that the strain could spread nationwide, which would put non GM crops at risk and pose potential health issues to those that consume it. However, the scientists are being very open with their research and have invited protestors to come in for a chat to see for themselves what theses experiments are trying to achieve.

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In an open letter, the Rothamsted Research scientists explain how their breakthrough would benefit the environment, reduce pesticide use, and potentially feed the planet. “We appeal to you as environmentalists,” the letter says. “Our GM wheat could, for future generations, substantially reduce the use of agricultural chemicals.”

The campaigners aren’t convinced saying that the GM wheat could threaten UK farming and that there is no assurance that food made from the wheat would be safe to eat. Speaking to the BBC, Lucy Harrap from Take the Flour Back said: “Cross contamination issues are important. So far, the evidence doesn’t indicate that GM fields need less pesticide – in fact they tend to need more.”

“The other thing is that they’re using an antibiotic resistance gene as a marker in this trial, and in many parts of the EU that’s considered quite outdated science now because you can get gene transfer into bacteria and so on,” she added.

So there you go, two sides, two important concerns – but which is the right one?

It is important to note that this isn’t the first time wheat has been modified. During the 1960s, Norman Borlaug combined elements from several wheat species to create ‘dwarf wheat’. This species was able to produce heavy yields without growing too tall and being blown over by the wind and rain. The creation transformed  India, which at the time had been ravaged by drought and overpopulation, and thanks to Borlaug’s work the wheat crop increased from 11 million tons to 60 million tons. Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and the title “father of the Green Revolution“.

So what makes the UK team’s work any different from Borlaug’s in terms of creating a modified wheat that could have massive benefits for the planet? The team’s wheat contains genes that have been synthesised in the laboratory, an approach that is more common than transferring genes from other organisms. By doing so, their wheat will produce a pheromone called E-beta-farnesene which wards off aphids. However the campaigners are saying the team’s “wheat” contains cow genes.

According to a BBC report, this gene is a promoter gene, which switches on other genes and is asynthetic variant of one found in many organisms, including wheat itself. The researchers explained that they chose a variant closer to the cow version than the wheat one in order to prevent other genes in the wheat recognizing its activity and regulating it.

Whether or not you believe the Rothamsted Research team’s research is wrong, it seems their motivation is just. Their letter states that their results will not be patented and will not be owned by any private company. They noted, “If our wheat proves to be beneficial we want it to be available to farmers around the world at minimum cost.”

So what do you think? Is it wrong to modify wheat in such a way or is it possibly the only way to feed the planet with its ever-growing population?

+ Rothamsted Research

Via BBC News

Images: jaimi.lammers