Support GM Wheat Trials

Support GM Wheat Trials

Researchers in England have developed genetically modified wheat with higher levels of iron. Support GM wheat trials by sending your comments by 4 March 2019 to Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Email your comments to gm-regulation@defra.gsi.gov.uk with the subject line 19/R52/02.

GM Freeze, an anti-biotech group, has been mobilizing their followers to flood Defra with negative comments. This isn’t the first time researchers in England have had to deal with anti-GMO groups. Back in 2012, protestors threatened to destroy field trials of aphid-resistant wheat.

Writing an effective public comment

Defra isn’t holding a vote or a popularity contest. They ask specifically for “representations on any risks of damage being caused to the environment by the release applied for in this application.” If you choose to provide a comment, remember that helpful comments are evidence-based. Discuss the specific risks and benefits posed by the GM wheat in this application, not just GMOs in general. The information below and in the project FAQ may be useful as you write your email.

The Brookings Institution describes 5 steps to an effective public comment:

  1. introduce why are you are interested, and list credentials or experience that make your comment relevant;
  2. clearly identify the issues on which you are commenting, and list your recommendations;
  3. provide analysis and evidence to support your recommendations;
  4. summarize your recommendations;
  5. list citations for any information you relied on.
Support GM Wheat Trials
Frank won’t sleep until the wheat is safe! Want to help? You can order your very own Frank N. Foode plushie today! Image by Karl Haro von Mogel.

Iron deficiency is still a major problem – biofortification is one solution

Many groups of people across the world suffer from iron deficiency anemia. It is a serious problem that causes stunting in children and doubles the risk of death for pregnant women. Iron deficiency anemia has been reduced with supplementation and fortification of foods. Even with those efforts, iron deficiency remains a major global health problem.

While interventions like supplements and gardens are nice, they leave out the populations in greatest need. Biofortification (fortifying the seed) through breeding or biotechnology (aka genetic modification or GM) is one way to increase nutrients in foods. The benefits can potentially spread to every farmer and every person who eats the biofortified food. Learn more about biofortification from HarvestPlus. My own thesis research (Novel approaches to improving qualities of maize endosperm) included efforts to increase iron levels in maize.

Unfortunately, staple grains lack genetic diversity for iron, so breeding for higher levels of iron isn’t really possible for crops like wheat and corn. Plant breeding has been successful in developing wheat with higher levels of zinc, another mineral important for human health. But despite decades of trying, international plant breeders have not been able to increase iron levels in wheat.

One concern with biofortification as a solution to micronutrient deficiency is whether costly seed will be made available to all. In the case of this GM high-iron wheat, private seed-company interests are not currently a concern: “the development of this particular wheat line was initially funded by the not-for profit organisation HarvestPlus (2013 – 2014), and subsequently it was publicly funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.” Licencing and breeding the trait into locally-relevant varieties is still a consideration, but the first step is making sure the trait performs in a field environment.

GM wheat with high iron is being developed

wheat kernel diagram
Image by Jkwchuide, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

Drs. James Connorton, Janneke Balk, and Cristobal Uauy “used the recently published wheat genome to locate two genes that were responsible for transport of iron. They then used one of these genes to direct more iron into the endosperm, the part of the grain from which white flour is milled.” The primary genes involved are from wheat, meaning that the trait is cisgenic (same species) rather than transgenic (different species), though many would still call the wheat a “GMO.” (See Intro to GMOs by the SciMoms for more details.)

As described in their FAQ, there is usually 5 to 8 mg iron per kg of white wheat flour, which is not high enough for human nutritional needs. Therefore, many countries require iron to be artificially added to wheat-based foods to prevent iron deficiency. The United Kingdom requires 16.5 mg iron per kg of milled white flour. Using biotechnology, the researchers developed a wheat variety with 20 mg iron per kg of milled white flour – when plants are grown in greenhouse conditions.

The next step is for the researchers to grow the plants outdoors in a field trial. According to the John Innes Centre, “two small-scale field trials are planned to take place at the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research Park, within our existing, confined, GM trial facilities, between April and September in each year from 2019 to 2022.”

Support GM wheat trials today

If you follow the guidelines we outline above, your comment could have a significant impact on these trials, and someday could help people with iron deficiency around the world.

Field trials are just one important step in the process – if the trials show the wheat variety has higher iron levels in a typical field environment, the researchers still have much work to do. The wheat would also face many, many more regulatory processes in each country where it might be grown.

If this sounds like beneficial research to you, there’s still time to comment. Support GM wheat trials by sending your comments by 4 March 2019 to Defra. Specifically, email your comments to gm-regulation@defra.gsi.gov.uk with the subject line 19/R52/02.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

One comment

  1. Excellent piece of research. I fully support your efforts and have written to DEFRA with my comments,

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