Scientists from Rothamsted Research, based in Hertfordshire, are using biotechnological tools to genetically engineer a wheat plant that produces high levels of an aphid repelling odour.
A controlled experiment is now underway to see if this works in the field, as wheat yields are typically vulnerable to attacks by aphids (also known as greenfly and blackfly).
Dr Toby Bruce, who leads the research project, told FoodNavigator.com: “If successful this wheat would not require treatment with insecticide. This is because it would repel colonisation by the aphid pests and also attract natural predators.
“However, we need to carry out the field experiment to discover if this is indeed the case.”
He said that it could provide “a possible alternative to insecticides and uses a non-toxic eco-friendly approach to pest control”. Also, food could be produced without pesticide residues.
Bruce added: “GM wheat is not grown commercially in the UK and GM wheat has not yet been developed for the UK market.
“If the trial is successful we really hope the wheat will be allowed because it will give farmers and consumers an alternative to relying on pesticides for insect control in crops.”
Wheat is said to be the most important UK crop, worth about £1.2 billion annually.
A large proportion of UK wheat is treated with chemical insecticides to control cereal aphid. The aphid suck sap from plants and reduce farmers' yields by damaging crops and spreading plant diseases.
However, repeated use of insecticides can lead to resistant aphids, as well as kill other insects.
Scientists at Rothamsted, funded by the UK Government through the BBSRC, have been seeking novel ecological solutions to overcome this problem in wheat.
One was to use an odour, or alarm pheromone, which aphids produce to alert one another to danger. This odour, (E)-β-farnesene, is also produced by some plants as a natural defence mechanism, repelling aphids and attracting their natural enemies, such as ladybirds.
The GM wheat plants are engineered to produce this odour.
However, the trial is not without its critics. The campaign group GM Freeze argues that there is a lack of market for GM wheat.
Pete Riley of GM Freeze, also believes it would increase costs for farmers and other parts of the supply chain to maintain constant monitoring of their products for GM presence, which will then have to be labelled.
But there are indications of wider support. Earlier this year the UK government’s chief scientist advisor, Sir John Beddington, said that GM crops could play an important role against a global food crisis and saw no safety reasons to oppose them, provided checks on health and the environmental impact were rigorous.