Outcome was buried on obscure government website. Report: Claire Robinson
Science funding body the BBSRC spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of British taxpayers' money on a failed project to genetically engineer wheat to enhance photosynthesis and thus increase yield.
For the project, which ran from 2016 to 2019, the BBSRC gave £695,933 of public money to researchers at the University of Essex led by Professor Christine Raines.
The field trial part of the project was carried out at Rothamsted Research.
The GM crop appeared to work in the greenhouse, but in common with countless other experimental GM crops, it failed in the field.
This fact is buried on a little known UK government website which includes a page about the project. Under the "outcomes" tab, this line appears: “Although glass house data provided evidence that the over expression of SBPase [a gene linked to leaf photosynthesis] would have a positive effect in the field - the field trial held at Rothamsted in 2019 showed no differences to wild type.”
The aim of the genetic modification was to increase the expression of the SBPase gene. The greenhouse "success" was promoted in a publication authored by Christine Raines and colleagues and published by the Royal Society, which began with the GMO industry trope that increased food production is needed "to meet the growing demand for food".
Commenting on the failure of the enhanced photosynthesis wheat, molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou said, "This outcome is not at all surprising to me. Photosynthesis is a genetically complex trait; that is, it's a product of many genes working together in highly sophisticated, coordinated networks. This failure shows just how much we still do not know about the intricacies of photosynthesis and that it cannot be enhanced by the reductionist approach of manipulating one or a few genes through genetic engineering. We need to accept the fact that each class of plant has optimised its photosynthetic process over millions of years of evolution and that it's naive to think we can improve on this using GM when we do not completely understand plant biochemistry and when there is a big risk of compromising other valuable traits."
The inability of GM to deliver on this trait is not a problem. It is well known by experts outside of the GMO and Big Ag lobbies that food production emphatically does not need to increase in order to "feed the world". The world is awash in surplus food – which, however, does not reach the hungry due to poverty and social inequities.
That's an issue that GM will never be able to address and that on the other hand, it could exacerbate, due to the high cost of GM seeds and technology.
Another expensive failure
Dr Antoniou reminded us that this is not the first time he has warned about the futility of expensive GM techno-fixes in crops. In 2012 he commented on the Gates Foundation's award of £6.4 million to the John Innes Centre to develop GM nitrogen-fixing cereals. Katherine Kahn of the Gates Foundation had told the Independent newspaper that the research had the potential "to transform the lives of small farmers" by "dramatically boosting the crop yields in Africa".
But Dr Antoniou noted that the money would have been better spent on cheap agroecological practices (low-input, traditional, organic) that have the potential to meet global food needs and yield long-term food security. He said, "There are safer, proven technologies, so I'm afraid the Gateses have been grossly misled. GM has failed to deliver for farmers; it can only deliver commercial returns."
Nine years on from the hype, this research has produced no commercialisable product.
Silence from Rothamsted
In contrast to the hype that Rothamsted generates around GM projects that are in the application stage – or that are still running and thus require continued funding – the institution kept silent on the abject failure of the GM "enhanced photosynthesis" wheat.
The fact that the crop had flopped only came to light as a result of research carried out for GM Freeze's submission to the UK government objecting to a new gene-edited GM wheat trial, which is also planned to be carried out at Rothamsted. GMWatch is a co-objector with GM Freeze to this trial. The trial is set to test gene-edited GM wheat intended to produce less of the carcinogen acrylamide when cooked at too-high temperatures, such as in burnt toast. GM Freeze commented that the GM wheat “appears to have been developed for those who are unable to use a toaster properly".
In GMWatch's view, these developments show that there is a need for transparent communication about the outcomes of GM trials on the part of the institutions involved and the UK government. Such transparency could help inform the public and policymakers about the desirability or otherwise of funnelling yet more public money into GM research.