Yields of wheat cross-bred from wild grass could be boosted by 30%

Rozie Apps
Sunday, 26th May 2013

Yesterday over 36 countries held rallies and dozens more protested against Monsanto, producers of GM food. In the same week, British scientists announce they can create disease resistant and drought tolerant crops, without the risks associated with genetic modification.

The use of genetic engineering in food production is hugely controversial. With the increase of genetically modified foods (GM), there is also growing evidence that those GM foods carry risks.

But scientists at the National Institute of Agriculture Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge, England, have produced a new variety of wheat without artificially changing the genetics of the grain. They have recreated an original rare cross between an ancient wheat and wild grass species that occurred over 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. 

The new breed can be crossed with modern UK varieties, offering yield improvement, drought tolerance and disease resistance, without a spliced gene in sight.

GM foods have been created with the aim of being drought tolerant, higher yielding and with resistance to pests and diseases, but they are hugely controversial. The seed is 'licensed' by corporate owners who aggressively discourage seed saving, ensuring that seeds are bought annually by farmers whether they are small producers or huge conglomerated agribusinesses. Many varieties are created to be resistant to branded herbicides and encourage, even necessitate, the use of these substances (produced by the same suppliers, of course). 

This is the ultimate in monocultural, industrial farming. Once these technologies are adopted, famers are locked into a fossil fuel based, mono-cropping system, relying on proprietary chemicals to gain larger yields. Short-term this may seem like a good idea but it is corporate controlled, industrial agriculture and entirely dependent on fossil fuels to transport seed and herbicides and then harvest the monocultures.

You couldn't get further from the model of smaller farms with mixed organic systems growing grains as well as tree crops, and livestock mob grazing on pasture, as advocated by farmers like Joel Salatin.

Application of the precautionary principle 

Aside from the socio-economic risks built in to the GM agricultural model, there are other causes for concern. Many of these stem from a vast host of 'unknowns' that should invite serious application of the precautionary principle. These include the potential proliferation of novel pathogens and the consequences for human health from introducing allergens and toxins in foods and changing the nutrient content of staple crops. There is also the argument that as a new product, GM foods have not been tested over a long enough period to understand the effects on humans.

Though seeds have been cross-bred over millenia, this is an important breakthrough for NIAB and could boost UK wheat yields by 30%, hugely improving food security. The new breed has all the benefits of GM food but through natural breeding. With our unpredictable weather, being able to grow a crop that is drought tolerant will have a huge impact on farmers and help to prevent at least some of the crop failures that are becoming increasingly common.

This new wheat breed will also be greatly welcomed by farmers with its disease resistant qualities. The EU have banned three Neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) which are commonly used pesticides, acting as insect nerve agents. They have been banned from use as seed treatment, soil application and foliar treatment on bee attractive plants and cereals because an increasing number of studies link them with the plummeting population of bees, who play an important role in the food cycle through pollination.

Many farmers are unhappy with the ban that will be applied from December 2013, believing they will lose crops to pests and disease. 

The new wheat has been created by using traditional breeding techniques in the glasshouse combined with tissue culture in the research laboratory. By crossing durum pasta wheat with wild goat-grass the result is a 'synthetic' seed which can then be used to cross with existing wheat varieties.

Dr Tina Barsby, CEO at BIAB said: "The original ancient cross has, so far, provided the genetic basis for all today's modern wheat varieties. Over the years, domestication of the wheat plant has increased yields, but recently those increases have slowed leading to concerns for future food security. This is partly because domestication has eroded wheat diversity and the possibilities for improvement from within the current wheat germplasm pool are reaching their limit."

Early-stages of the trial have shown a yield increase of 30%, even with the last few seasons being cold and wet, with a lack of sunlight depressing yield.

Senior plant breeder Dr Phil Howell said: "The plan is to use this material in screening experiments to provide breeders with material adapted to the challenges of the future, with restrictions on pesticides and fertilisers coupled with projected climate change."

The varieties could be on farms by 2019 at the earliest.

Protests

International protests were held on May 25th 2013 against the biotechnology company, Monsanto, who produce GM crops. Monsanto are an American multinational company, who were one of the first to genetically modify a plant cell in 1983, and among the first to conduct field trials of genetically modified crops in 1987.

Protests spaned six continents, there were demonstrations in dozens of countries and rallies in 36. The company are under attack from environmentalists, agriculturalists and consumers due to the way they have aggressively promoted GM foods and organisms both in political and legal spheres internationally.

A new wheat species that has not been genetically modified and helps increase yields; this should surely be celebrated globally. 

Rozie Apps is assistant editor at Permaculture magazine.

More resources

GM wheat to be trialled in the UK

Permaculture: a viable option as pharmaceutical companies struggle to 'tackle' chemical resistant weeds

African biotech specialist disputes concerns over genetically engineered foods

'Occupy the seed!' Vandana's call for seed saving eBook

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