Field trials involving genetically modified (GM) barley that scientists believe could cut the use of synthetic fertilisers have been given the go ahead.
The barley variety has been genetically modified to boost expression levels of the NSP2 gene and scientists will evaluate whether improved crop interaction with naturally occurring soil fungi can lead to more sustainable food production.
The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) gave the green light following advice from the Food Standards Agency, Natural England and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, saying the area sown on 3 sites operated by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) must not exceed 2,500 square metres each year. Inspections will take place during the 5 year trial by the Genetic Modification Inspectorate.
This trial will enable scientists to discover whether enhancing the mutually beneficial relationship for food crops can allow for the reduction, or even elimination, of the need to supply nitrogen and phosphorous via synthetic fertilisers.
While the use of synthetic fertilisers supports crop production, it also causes significant pollution that impacts biodiversity, as well as causing greenhouse gas emissions. In low-income countries, a lack of access to fertilisers limits crop production. The field trails will test whether lines of barley enhanced for their engagement with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi could improve sustainable productivity, with the potential to reduce pollution in high and middle-income countries, as well as raising productivity in low-income countries.
The field trial initially will evaluate a variety of barley that has been modified to express higher levels of the NSP2 gene native to barley to enhance its existing capacity to engage the fungi.
Once harvested, the crop yield and grain nutrition will be quantified to assess impacts of the improved capacity to interact with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and the trial will also investigate additional potential benefits of the relationship with fungi, such as protecting crops from pests and disease.
Trial leader Professor Giles Oldroyd, Professor of Sustainable Crop Nutrition at the Crop Science Centre, said there was an urgent need to satisfy the demands of a growing population and that biotechnology could be a valuable tool for expanding the options available to farmers around the globe.
The application to Defra also requested permission to conduct a trial at a later date with a variety of barley modified with the NSP2 gene from a common ground cover plant, commonly known as barrel medic, that also enhances barley’s interactions with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.
The application for the trials was made by the Crop Science Centre, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and NIAB.