Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Institute of Arable Crop Research


  1. Both wheat and sugar beet were amongst the last crops for which reasonably efficient transformation systems have been developed. There are, therefore, fewer products than might otherwise have been expected. Wheat has been transformed by using a ballistics device (gun). This approach often leads to larger inserts of foreign DNA than the use of Agrobacterium-based methods. sugar beet has been transformed in different ways including using Agrobacterium vectors. The poor efficiency of almost all techniques has required the use of selectable markers (e.g., herbicide resistance) and has precluded the use of more sophisticated techniques to remove bacterial antibiotic resistance markers. This may change as technologies develop.


  2. Modification in sugar beet are nearer the market and include herbicide tolerance (to both Roundup from Monsanto and Basta from AgrEvo) and virus resistance. Future targets in sugar beet might include (if suitable genes can be defined):

    —  Virus resistance; virus yellow is a major economic problem.

    —  Nematode resistance; these are major economic pests worldwide.

    —  Aphid resistance; because the aphids carry viruses would have to stop the aphids from damaging the plant sufficient to transmit the virus.

    —  Production of sugars other than sucrose; this could provide some industrial attraction.

    —  Stress resistance—particularly drought and frost; drought is the largest single problem for the UK beet crop.

    —  Control of bolling/flowering; sugar beet is a biennial and is triggered to flower by cold—a barrier to beneficial early planting.

  3. Modifications field-tested in wheat include genes for controlling fungal diseases and modified processing properties. Future modifications might include.

    —  Herbicide tolerance; although neither Monsanto nor AgrEvo have announced such projects in wheat. There are technical opportunities using other herbicides if they are commercially attractive.

    —  Modified starch and further modifications to seed proteins; already there are commercial plants that separate out the starch and gluten from wheat grain, possibilities exist to enhance the value of both products and to replace imported maize starch.

    —  Modification of height and straw strength; lodging is still a problem and chemicals to shorten and strengthen the straw are used widely.

    —  Genes to allow easier production of hybrid seed; novel genetic approaches to make hybrids in oil-seed rape are in commercial trials—these could eventually be adapted to work in wheat, which would greatly enhance the value of the seed market.

    —  Virus resistance, particularly to soil-borne viruses.

    —  Nematode resistance.

    —  Stress resistance.

    —  Control development; sprouting, malting quality depend on the way seeds develop.


Herbicide tolerance

  4. Because both crops are already tolerant to a wide range of herbicides almost all the acreage of both crops is sprayed with herbicides. GMO herbicide-tolerant crops will increase the range of herbicides available. This change will allow more environmentally friendly herbicides and even less herbicidal ingredients to be used. The result will greatly depend on the circumstances of the crops. Because the GMO crops have a high degree of tolerance they will allow the farmer to wait to see where the weed problems are before spraying rather than, in some cases, having to reply on prophylactic pre-emergence spraying. They also offer interesting biocontrol possibilities for reducing damage from pests without reducing biodiversity and also reducing total pesticide usage.

Fungal disease resistance

  5. Cereals are major targets for fungicides in Europe. Really effective disease resistance, which may not be easy to achieve, would lead to a large decrease in the use of fungicides.

Virus resistance

  6. Both crops suffer from viruses. The most serious in the long term are those that are present in the soil and transmitted by fungi—e.g., Rhizomania in sugar beet. Because infected soils are almost impossible to disinfect, growing healthy crops on infected soils depends on in-built genetic resistance to either the fungus, or the virus, or both. Some conventional sources of resistance exist within the germplasm but there is considerable potential for a novel GM approach. Some concerns may arise over certain anti-viral approaches, where homologous recombination events occur and give rise to new viruses.

Straw shortening and development in wheat

  7. Genetic straw shortening could potentially lead to increased yields and decrease use of synthetic chemicals. Control of sprouting and germination could markedly increase the quality and value of wheat and barley for breadmaking and brewing respectively.

Hybrid production

  8. The value of the wheat seed market is much lower than that for hybrid crops, e.g., maize, sugar beet. The low value of the seed will constrain the investment and traits that are devoted to the crop. A hybrid seed market would allow investors to recover the value of their investment. Without hybrid cereals there will be a dependence on the public sector to drive crop improvement by GM technology. This could have adverse effects on the competitiveness of UK agriculture.

GMOs and end products

  9. I have not covered very high value chemicals (e.g., pharmaceuticals) which may only be grown on a very small scale. Products, e.g., sugars, which are extracted and purified from GMOs should not contain any trace of the inserted genes in that they contain neither DNA nor protein. In contrast, modifications in seed proteins will be carried through into the final product. There will therefore be different issues to be considered in using and following the products of GMOs in the food chain.

Escape into the wild

  10. Wheat is not able to exist in the wild in the UK for more than two or three years at most. It also has no wild relatives in the UK with which it could cross. Cultivated sugar beet rarely survives long in the wild. However, although a biennial crop, a small proportion of the plants in the root crop flower in the first year and, if not eradicated, can give rise to a long-term weed beet problem. Therefore transgenes could become established in weed beet. Wild Beta maritima is restricted to costal margins and there is evidence that cross pollination occurs rarely between these and cultivated beet. These risks of transgene escape are currently being evaluated at IACR.

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