British scientists have developed a new GM wheat that fends off pests. But environmental groups are expressing fears about the possible impact of the new crop on the environment, saying it could damage the eco-system and have adverse effects on humans.
The genetically modified (GM) wheat works by releasing a chemical pheromone that greenfly aphids produce to alert each other of danger, such as approach of a predator. Production of the same pheromone by the wheat fends off the greenfly aphids because the fly interprets the "scent" of the pheromone as warning of danger.
Aphid greenflies cause farmers and gardeners great losses. They feed on sugars in the leaves of plants and destroy the plant. The Independent reports that aphids cause up to 120 million pounds of damage to wheat every year in Britain and that the cost is rising.
During a trial at the Rothamsted Research laboratory in Hertfordshire, the GM wheat produced enough pheromones to repel about 80 percent of greenflies. The researchers say development of the new GM wheat is a major breakthrough and it is the first time a plant producing a pheromone to ward off pests has been developed.
The researchers have tried to allay fears of environmental groups, saying that the pheromone the crop produces is a "natural" product and could actually be beneficial to the environment because it would stop the need of farmers using toxic chemical pesticides on their farms and gardens.
According to the researchers, the gene producing the pheromone was taken from the peppermint plant and inserted into the DNA of the wheat crop. According to Professor John Pickett of Rothamsted Research: "Aphids use an alarm pheromone, which when they are attacked by predators like ladybirds or parasitic wasps, causes them to disperse.That dispersal activity can be used to repel them from the crop. It’s a natural product which we breathe and eat every day, which does not rely on toxic pesticides. We hope it will be good for farming."
Reuters reports the pheromone literally creates panic among the aphids and causes them to flee a field cultivated with the GM wheat. The pheromone, according to Reuters, also attracts tiny parasitoid wasps to lay eggs in the aphids. Professor Pickett, lead researcher in chemical ecology at Rothamsted Research at a media briefing, said: "[the parasitoid wasps] eats the aphids from the inside out so it takes out the population on the crop." He added to emphasize what he believes is the environment-friendly pattern of action of the new GM Wheat: "We are providing a totally new way of controlling the pests that doesn't rely on toxic modes of action."
The Independent reports that the "fear" pheromone called farnesene, also attracts ladybirds that feed on the aphids.
Pickett expressed excitement at the results of the laboratory trials, saying it was "better than our wildest dreams." He said the new approach to protecting wheat crop from pest attack could eventually be extended to other crops.
Reuters reports field trials now underway are being funded by government, and according to Daily Mail, will be carried out this year and next year.
Professor Maurice Moloney, director at Rothamsted Research station, promoting the new GM wheat, said: "GM has traditionally been associated with killing something. Either killing the weeds or killing the insects. In this case what we are doing is putting a 'no parking' sign on every leaf of the plant. It's a very different strategy from what's been done so far and I think it will open up many avenues that will allow us to use natural mechanisms and allow to respond to concerns from the public about the amount of pesticides that are used."
The Independent reports the trials have been approved by the British Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, the body that regulates all field trials related to GM crops. Measures have been put in place to ensure that pollen and seeds from the crops are controlled and that the crops are not eaten by humans and animals. A metal fence has been erected to protect the site from intruders, including anti-GM crop activists, "birds, hedgehogs, rabbits and other large animals." Pickett said while they were expecting opposition from groups hostile to GM crop technology, "We've had meetings with the public and anti-GM lobby groups, and we've found there is common ground because I think there is a lot of common interest in improving the sustainability of agriculture and in using natural processes. We do feel there is a better view of GM technology from the public at large but we recognise there are some individuals who are strongly against this kind of thing and they may seek to disrupt it by direct action."
But some environmental groups say they are not convinced by the report of the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that says that an independent study has shown that the trial will have no damaging effect on the environment. Peter Riley of GM Freeze, a group campaigning against the trials, argues that the aphids will merely abandon fields cultivated with the GM wheat and move to the nearest field available to them. Daily Mail reports he said: "They have done this in a laboratory. In the field it’s different. The history of GM crops demonstrates that contamination can occur. It can interfere with the ecosystem and send aphids on to other plants. There are a lot of unanswered questions."
Reuters reports Riley said: "There are natural alternatives with which, if you design your farm right with plenty of cover and food for predators and parasitic wasps, you can control aphids pretty effectively and that has been demonstrated in the UK. We don't see any need for this technology other than it is potentially more profitable to do GM than to tell farmers how to create the right habitats on their farms."
Riley argued further that if the new wheat was produced commercially it could contaminate non-GM varieties. He also raised questions about the long-term effectiveness of the measure, saying: "We feel it is likely, if it is used very widely, that aphids would eventually get habituated to the chemical and not take any notice of it."
The Independent reports that research into GM crops has remained controversial since when, in the 1990s, a scientist claimed study results that showed GM potatoes were poisonous to laboratory rats. Even though his research methodology was widely criticized by his peers, environmental groups were quick to cite the study as evidence that GM crops could be harmful to the environment and humans, and some dubbed them "Frankenfood." Others have argued that GM technology is only a business strategy being employed by companies to increase market share and make more profits.
But supporters of GM technology say it is humanity's only long-term hope of feeding growing population, and with the growing number of relatively affluent people in the world who are demanding higher quality food, the only way to meet up in the long run is exploiting the benefits of GM technology.