Is the World Ready for GM Wheat?

Subject: Science
Type: Argumentative Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 2016
Topics: Biology, Agriculture, Food, Genetics, GMO, Innovation

Wheat is the second most important cereal crop after rice, where India, China and the United States are the top producers in the world (Lanqin et al. 2011). According to Food and Agriculture Organization (2012), wheat feeds an approximate 4.5 billion people in the world, providing 20% of calories and proteins. In fact, FAO predicts a 60% increase in demand of this important cereal, by the year 2050. The implication is that, wheat yield must increase by at least 1.6% in order to cater for this demand. However, with the advent of climate change and increasing world population, wheat yield has reduced considerably over time; for instance, area of cultivation reduced from 111.98 kg per capita in 1990 to 100.62 kg per capita in 2009 (Kiss, 2010). Out of the 27 European Union countries, FAO (2011) reports that only France, Germany and United Kingdom have made significant progress in production of wheat. 

Though over 40% of the world countries depend on imported wheat, only 23% of it is disposed by producing countries (Burch et al., 2012). For instance, Middle East and North Africa (MENA), imports 37.5% of their wheat demand (FAO, 2013). Due to this unfortunate shortage, agricultural scientists have been spending huge chunks of their time to invent technologies that can reverse the continued decline in wheat production. Genetic modification (GM), is the main scientific innovation that has paradoxically attracted praise and criticism on equal measure. For instance, Leland et al. (2010) asserts that attitude on the acceptability and benefit of GM wheat depend on social and structural differences existing among farmers and the political class. Based on various GM technologies available, their success/failure and issues of acceptability, one may ask; is the world really ready for GM wheat? The task of this paper will dwell on answering this question, by uncovering the various factors that threaten wheat production, discussing the GM technologies available as well as sampling some case studies that have either been successful or unsuccessful in solving the challenges of wheat production.

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Factors affecting wheat production 

Wheat production has been facing threats from both biotic and abiotic sources. These sources have interacted overtime, leading to stress events in quantity, variety and quality of wheat in different parts of the world. Desertification is one of the abiotic factors that have led to periodic draught. In an experiment conducted to explore abiotic stress in asynchronous metabolism of protein in wheat, Winning et al., (2009) established that fumaric acid in wheat, is very sensitive to water deficits. The study further showed that draught stages at generative stage had more impacts on wheat production than during vegetative stages. Moreover, multiple draught events, greatly impacts protein metabolism in wheat, which implies poor quality yield (IPCC, 2007). 

During winter, global dimming has been found to impact wheat production negatively. A study conducted by Mu et al., (2010) established that reduced radiation led to low wheat yield, with Triticum aestivum L cultivars being the most affected. The reduction was attributed to reduced photosynthetic rate. Shading was therefore established as a major impediment to wheat yield during winter season. 

Biotic factors further compound wheat yield across the world. Fusarium head blight (FHB) is a fungal disease that mostly attacks wheat during flowering stage and grain fill. The disease is favored by prolonged rainfall and a combination of cool weather and humidity. The disease if very fatal, especially because it comes in outbreak; for example, in 1991 a total of $1billion was lost in Dakota regions of the US curtesy of the FHB (Agrios, 2005). 

Another major disease is wheat rust, which occurs in three species: Puccinia graminis- affecting stem, P. triticina- affecting leaf and P. striiformis- stripe rust. The disease has actually been nicknamed ‘agricultural polio’ due to its nature of crippling the crop (Appel et al. 1996). In fact, Britain scientists have estimated that over 90% of the wheat from Africa is infected with wheat rust, following the 1999 outbreak in Uganda (Hartl and Schweizer, 2000). Another outbreak was also observed in Germany and Ethiopia in 2013 leading to at least 50% loss in wheat yield.  Other wheat damaging diseases include: leaf spot (septoria and tan spot) and wheat curl mite (high plains virus-HPV and wheat streak mosaic virus-WSMV). These diseases have significantly affected wheat grown in Great Plains especially during winter. For instance, 2% loss of wheat is attributed to WSMV in Kansas every year (McMullen and Nelson, 1989). 

Technologies for generating GM wheat 

In their quest to improve wheat yield and quality, scientists have developed GM wheat using various technologies. The technology is basically based on molecular genetics. It is important to note that, compared to other cereals such as rice and maize, application of technology in molecular genetics of wheat has been relatively low due to the complexity exhibited in its genome and also its level of polymorphism is low compared to other cereal crops (Endo and Gill, 1996).  However, its cytogenetic manipulation and hexaploidy nature have been found to be very advantageous in genetic modification. Some of these technologies are discussed below.

Wheat varietal fingerprinting

The technology uses capillary electrophoresis and operates on the principle that wheat endosperm is the most important part and is therefore, responsible for differences in varieties and their subsequent qualities in storage of gluten. varietal fingerprinting technology is meant to identify various varieties of wheat, the areas they perform the best and how they can be bred to produce the best variety, that incorporates all unique advantages of each variety, including pest resistance, high yields and susceptibility to climate change. In the environment of reducing agents, low Ph (acid-PAGE) analysis is done to determine the proteins that are soluble in alcohol. In so doing, a pattern of strips are formed for different varieties when electrical current is passed through the capillary tube. After identification of the varieties, gentic modification is done through interbreeding of the wheat varieties that are found to possess both biotic and abiotic advantages (Bohorova et al. 1995)

Molecular linkage maps

Wheat linkage maps are used to map the genes that contain desirable traits in wheat. The first RFLP (restriction fragment length polymorphism) were done by Chao et al. (1989), who used seven homoeologous chromosomes of different wheat varieties to establish desired traits. A linkage map for wheat has also been developed by Norwich RFLP, and has over 500 loci to date. The principle behind the linkage maps is that a diploid genome of wheat possesses more advanced variabilities in wheat productivity traits and also for biotic stress. Using a recombinant genome, these traits can effectively be transferred to hexaploidy through marker assisted selection and then analysed through   SSR (simple sequence repeat). Polymorphic markers are then transferred to hexaploidy to eliminate biotic stress and subsequently improve productivity (Mondal, 2016). A successful application of this GM technology is in elimination of wheat leaf rust disease (Feuillet, 2003)

Single genes mapping

Using RAPDs and RFLPs, many chromosomal regions of wheat, controlling certain disease traits as well as have been mapped and converted into more robust  specific amplicons (ASAs). This technology operates in the principle that there are many near-isogenic lines (NILs) of wheat, which differ in or presence or even absence of a defective/resistant allele. This technology has facilitated the establishment of specific lines where pest resistant genes exists in a wheat chromosome (Hartl et al., 1993, 1995). According to Anderson et al., (1992), when the location of particular defective gene is known, one can score parental lines and hence develop a single chromosome map. 

Michelmore et al. (1991)

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Quantitative trait mapping

This technology is used to identify various locations where a defective gene or one that is susceptible to abiotic stress is found in a chromosome of wheat. While using this technology, Anderson et al. (1998) was able to determine five quality trait locus (QTL) which are attributed to Fusarium scab resistance. One of the breakthrough in application of quantative trait mapping is the control of leaf rust where adult plant resistance (APR) genes are used to identify chronic leaf rust resistance. 

Khairallah et al., (1998)

Case studies of successful and failed GM wheat technologies

The ongoing technology of developing GM wheat has been characterized by trial and errors. While at some instance technology has succeeded to manipulate nature, other attempts have failed to achieve this manipulation or have even led to generation of worse results. Examples of these projects are discussed below. 

The failed whiffy wheat project in UK

In the year 2010, scientists at Rothamsted Research embarked on a GM wheat project, whose aim was to eliminate the notorious aphids through introduction of insect pheromone. This hormone was obtained from mint plants and was found to repel aphids in the lab experiment. Unfortunately, lab results failed to be replicated in the field. In fact, there was no significant difference in either wheat produce or in attack of wheat by aphids between the farm where the genome was applied and in the control farm. Despite the fact that the project faced major criticism from activists and other scientists across the globe, the UK government funded the project at a tune of £3m. The failure of the project was attributed to difficulty in control nature, where aphids got used to the alarm that was meant to repel them (Cressey,  2015). Majority of the people in the UK and world at large celebrated the failure, an implication that the world is not ready for GM wheat. 

The successful Monsanto wheat project 

Since 1997, Monsanto has been developing wheat technology through biotechnology, breeding and improving wheat agronomy. Through their partnership with Virginia Tech and Kansas State University, Monsanto has developed WestBred brand that was found to improve wheat production by 5 to 15%. However, due to worldwide criticism of GM wheat, the company abandoned its planned global market, that was set to begin in 2004. In fact, by just mentioning that they were going to introduce the GM wheat, the wheat export from the US declined considerably, which again is an implication that the world is not ready for GM wheat (Carter, 2005). 

The ongoing Hertfordshire wheat project

In the year 2016, scientists at Rothamsted Research submitted a proposal to carry out a field trial of wheat at Harpenden. In the laboratory results, the wheat has been genetically modified to use sunlight in a more efficient manner and improve greenhouse productivity by over 40%. A gene from wild relative of wheat-named ‘stiff brome’ will be introduced in wheat, in an attempt to make photosynthesize more efficient as well as gain more from CO2. The government has already accepted to authorize and fund the project. It is set to run between 2017 and 2019. However, there has been over 20 field trials of GM wheat in UK, but most of them have bee generally unsuccessful. As usual, there is a widespread protest from anti-GM activists and also from wheat farmers who feel that the solution to wheat shortage is not genetic modification of nature. The implication again, is that the world is not ready for GM wheat.

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Based on the analysis discussed in this paper, it can be explained that scientists have gone far and wide to show their might in providing solutions to food shortage challenges in the world. Various GM technologies have been employed to alter defective genes, introduce beneficial genes as well as breed the varieties that possess more resilience in the advent of climate change. However, most of the trials have been unsuccessful while others have achieved some good results. The discussion has shown that manipulation of nature is a hard task and requires massive investments and patients. Various case studies presented in this study have also shown that the world is not ready for GM wheat. Almost all attempts to introduce GM wheat especially in the Europe, have been slammed with massive protests from anti-GM activists, famers and the general public. The deep rooted socio-cultural beliefs and the general fear of scientifically engineered foods, have been the reason for these protests. It can therefore be concluded that the world is not ready for GM wheat. 

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