By the middle of this century it is expected that there will be 9 billion humans alive on this planet. That’s really rather a large number of hungry mouths to feed and it is thought that global food production will need to increase by 40% to cope. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet solution that can deliver on this. What is required is an entire battery of different, complimentary approaches that can cumulatively meet this huge increase in demand.
One such effort is a field trial of a new super yielding wheat recently given the go ahead in the UK. Rothamstead Research filed for permission to carry out the trial last year from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and were ultimately granted approval last week by the Government’s Department for Food and Rural Affairs.
On the one hand this is exciting news as Rothamstead Research are world leaders in wheat research of all kinds, not just genetic, and they have been at the cutting edge for some time now. On the other hand there is a slight sense of foreboding as field trials by this group have occasionally resulted in protests in the past. They have even had crops deliberately destroyed by protesters who presumably think they are saving the world from the apocalypse.
The new wheat they’re about to test is particularly exciting as the potential results are substantial. Over the past couple of decades the increase in yield of wheat grain has plateaued at less than 1%/yr, this is not good news for our expanding population. The new GM wheat has already been tested inside greenhouses and there, under ideal conditions, it resulted in yield increases of 30-40%.
No one expects the wheat to do that well in the real word, it’s not realistic. Speaking to the BBC, lead scientist Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, said, “At the moment with traditional methods if you get [an increase of] one percent you are pretty happy. Anything more than a few percent would be super yielding. I would be happy if we could get 5-10; anything more than that would be absolutely massive.”
Massive indeed. It would be a huge first step but it alone would not be sufficient. Wheat production needs to average a 3% annual increase in production yields if we are to avoid people starving in the decades to come.
The science behind this is actually quite straightforward. The enzyme sedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase) has long been known to be involved in the efficiency of photosynthesis. All the scientists have done is to increase the number of copies of this already naturally present gene. The hypothesis is that more copies of the gene will result in more enzyme which will result in more photosynthesis. In the greenhouse plants grew larger and had larger and more abundant seeds, which are the bits we go on to eat.
Obviously the work has it’s detractors. Part of the the approval process for the field trial involved a public consultation during which no fewer than 25 anti-GMO organisations lodged their discontent. Liz O’Neill of GM Freeze told the BBC, “People aren’t starving because photosynthesis isn’t efficient enough; people are starving because they are poor.”
Sadly, as much as Liz, I and you, dear reader, would love to end world poverty it is not going to happen anytime soon. I completely agree that everything possible should be done to reduce the massive inequalities we have in the world but even that, alone, will not solve all our troubles. We really do need multiple plans to fully address them all.
Similarly to energy production, solar is not the only solution to the our production needs. Wind, tidal, nuclear and, yes, probably some residual, low level, fossil fuel use all need to be a part of the mix. The answer is not simple and anyone who says it is is not being completely honest.
Until we have eradicated global poverty, then, incremental increases like this, the bedrock of all modern science, are very much one of the avenues we need to be striding down with purpose. I wish the trial every success.