The spring wheat now growing in a small field in Hertfordshire is mind-boggling stuff. More than 20 years in the making, the crop shares some of its DNA with the peppermint plant. The result is a chemical copy of the pheromone that aphids use to warn each other of danger.
In the lab, the genetically modified super-wheat not only deters the aphids themselves but also attracts the tiny, parasitical wasps which are their particular bête noire. If the field trials yield similar results, the implications are almost too vast to quantify.
For a start, aphids are a huge problem for wheat farmers, feeding on the crop and spreading potentially devastating viruses in the process. A naturally aphid-repellent strain would mean no more spraying with chemical pesticides. But the benefits are not restricted to wheat farmers. Although there are already some GM crops which borrow natural defences from elsewhere – such as the bacillus thuringiensis genes spliced into cotton plants to repel bollworms – the Rothamsted Research programme is the first to focus on pheromones. If successful, it opens up a whole world of possibility.
The stakes are high. Indeed, the need for smarter, less chemically intensive ways to grow large quantities of food cannot be overstated. Although 20th-century industrialised farming techniques were highly successful in the short term, they are not sustainable. The environmental consequences – from denuded soils to pest mutations to collapsing songbird populations – cannot be mitigated forever. The returns on new developments are also steadily diminishing. Meanwhile, the global population is booming and rising temperatures are putting a squeeze on the amount of viable farmland.
GM got off to a bad start. Between public suspicion of agricultural multinationals such as Monsanto, and fears of Frankenstein foods (not helped by the crisis over mad cow disease), scientists resoundingly lost the public debate. It can only be hoped that the Rothamsted wheat crop – with its highly targeted, non-lethal promise of natural deterrence – can help tilt the balance back in favour of progress. The only question that remains is: will it work?