Researchers have been given the go-ahead to carry out field trials of genetically modified (GM) wheat in Hertfordshire.

Rothamsted Research, based near Harpenden, has worked with researchers at the University of Essex and Lancaster University to develop wheat plants that can carry out photosynthesis more efficiently.

This could potentially result in higher-yielding plants, and the purpose of the trial is to evaluate the performance of the engineered plants in the field.

Rothamsted Research submitted an application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in November last year, and this has now been reviewed and approved.

The application was for permission to carry out GM field trials on the Rothamsted Farm between 2017 and 2019.

The risk assessment was reviewed by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), and a 48-day public consultation was carried out by Defra. ACRE concluded it is “satisfied all scientific issues raised by the public with respect to this application have been addressed”.

Rothamsted Research scientists also spoke to and answered questions from the public and special interest groups as part of the application.

There is a projected need to increase world food production by 40% in the next 20 years and 70% by 2050, according to Defra.

Wheat provides about one-fifth of the total calories consumed globally, it said, but wheat yields “have reached a plateau in recent years and predictions are that yield gains will not reach the level required to feed the nine billion population predicted for 2050.

“Traditional breeding and agronomic approaches have maximised light capture and allocation to the grain. A promising but as yet-unexploited route to increase wheat yields is to improve the efficiency by which energy, in the form of light, is converted to wheat biomass.”

Professor Christine Raines, head of the school of biological sciences at the University of Essex and principal investigator for the research project, said: “There is now evidence that improving the efficiency of photosynthesis by genetic modification is one of the promising approaches to achieve higher wheat yield potential.”

Rothamsted Research plant biology and crop science department head Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, who is lead scientist for the trial, said: “This trial will be a significant step forward, as we will be able to assess in ‘real environmental conditions’ the potential of these plants to produce more, using the same resources and land area as their non-GM counterparts.”