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SCIENCE & POLICY: Is there a future for GM in the UK?

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SOURCE: Farmers Guardian, UK

AUTHOR: Alistair Driver, Jack Davies & William Surman


DATE:   28.11.2008

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The first round of the great GM debate ended in outright victory for the doubters. But the biotech industry is trying again with a new generation of GM products. Alistair Driver, Jack Davies and William Surman investigate in this Farmers Guardian special report.

Genetic Modification (GM) has been a contentious issue in agriculture since the early stages of its development in the mid-1950s.

The ability to take a plant and alter its genetic make-up has provided scientists with the tools to produce custom-made crops, which they say can out-perform their natural cousins in the field.

For some it is hailed as a major breakthrough. Others see it as a dangerous step too far for modern technology.

The first generation

Although the first commercial GM crops were tomatoes planted in 1994, it wasn?t until 1996 that GM really came to the fore, with 1.66 million hectares of crops planted with GM traits.

The first generation were designed to combat major weed and pest infestations, the focus being very much on boosting farmers? incomes.

More than 60 per cent of the initial plantings were of herbicide-tolerant soy. Similar varieties of maize, canola and cotton, as well as insect resistant cotton and maize, made up the rest.

Since 1996, worldwide plantings have grown every year. In 2007, 12 million farmers planted over 114 million hectares of GM crops in over 20 countries worldwide (see graph, below) - an area roughly equivalent to 28 times the arable cropping area of the UK.

Today, herbicide and pest resistant varieties of maize, soy, canola and cotton dominate the GM market, with the US the largest grower at more than 52m hectares and Argentina second with 18m ha (see chart, below).

India is the fastest growing user, with a 63 per cent gain in 2007 to a total 6.2m ha grown by 3.8 million, mainly small producers, accounting for a third of GM farmers.

The EU and UK markets

Meanwhile, the EU has been resisting the technology. Only one GM product, Monsanto?s Bt maize, approved before the 1998 EU moratorium on GM approvals, is allowed to be grown in Europe. Spain is by far the biggest user, but overall plantings remain low.

GM crops were grown in the UK in 2000 as part of a three-year Government trial, which saw herbicide tolerant varieties of maize, sugar beet and oilseed rape grown at 60 sites around the country.

The controversial trials measured the impact of the crops, or rather the chemicals used with them, on biodiversity.

The results were mixed, but regulatory barriers were subsequently put in place, which, combined with public opposition, have effectively prevented GM crops being grown commercially.

Scientists now say the technology has come on leaps and bounds and crops can be developed to offer almost limitless possibilities for farmers and society.

While the first generation targeted farmers? bottom lines, GM crops in future could also provide nutritional benefits for consumers, help boost food supplies in developing countries and offer a range of environmental benefits, the scientists say. Here are some of the possibilities.

By 2015?

? Blight resistant potatoes - BASF is currently conducting field trials at a site in Cambridgeshire. Still some way from the market, they would be the most appropriate GM product to the UK to date.

? Drought tolerance - Monsanto has already completed fourth year field trials on crops engineered to require less water to achieve optimal growth conditions. Such products could reduce water use in agriculture, helping reduce farming?s environmental impact.

? Improved nitrogen utilisation - By maximising efficiency in the plant?s nitrogen use, this technology would help reduce the need for fertiliser.

Colin Merrit, head of external affairs at Monsanto UK, says: ?It?s about getting more from what you are putting in - so we could get yield increments or, we could get the same yield as we are already seeing, but dramatically reduce fertiliser use in the process.?

? Omega 3 rich - In recent US field trials soya beans producing health-promoting Omega 3 oils have been grown. It is hoped the process will be developed in other crops to allow super-nutritious foods to be grown.

By 2030?

? Frost resistance - Using a gene from a cold water fish, scientists are trying to engineer crops to be grown in cold conditions, extending the growing season in parts of the world, boosting yields.

? General stress resistance - With a variable climate in the UK, protecting against a range of stresses could be a major advancement.

Christine Foyer, Professor of molecular agriculture at Newcastle University, says: ?It is possible to create a crop which has a higher threshold for stress. So whether it is a period of drought, frost or even flooding, boosting the overall stress response of the crop will allow them to thrive.?

? Cancer-fighting and health-promoting foods - Purple tomatoes which produce compounds providing protection against certain cancers have been grown in recent trials at the Rothamstead Institute.

Engineering crops to produce higher vitamin levels and health-promoting compounds is now the subject of major research at the big biotech firms.

Beyond 2030?

? Pharming - One area that has received much attention, but is still very much in its early stages, is the development of vaccines in food crops. It may be possible to grow crops for use in medicine production.

How much of this will apply to the UK?

In the immediate future, scientists say it would be possible to use the technologies developed in some other countries in the UK.

An insect resistant wheat, for example, could be produced and sent through the regulatory pipeline if biotech companies saw a market for it.

Prof Foyer believes the UK?s climate makes insect-resistant crops ideal for farmers here.

?By taking care of weeds or pests, you have a much better chance of improved yields,? she says. Similarly, pest resistance would also allow farmers to reduce pesticide use and improve their environmental footprint.

Monsanto and German company Bayer both have herbicide tolerant oilseed rape varieties on the EU approved import list, while Bayer also has an approved herbicide-tolerant sugar beet, which could all easily be grown in the UK if sanctioned by the EU.

But beyond those few products, there is very little which could currently be planted in the UK, leaving many farmers questioning the value of GM.

Scientists are keen to point out that the science is constantly evolving and as more products come on line in the future, including possibly versions of those already mentioned, they will provide real opportunities for UK farmers.

But the biggest problem for the UK, according Helen Ferrier, the NFU?s chief science adviser, is that it is ?already 10 years behind? the US and South America, where crops have been tailored to address specific problems faced by their farmers.

Most of the current crop of GM products, such as maize, cotton and soy, are not grown in the UK. Until the likes of Monsanto, BASF and Syngenta see a future in the UK market, progress will be slow, she says.

?It needs a company to decide to invest heavily in something that is useful to growers in the UK.

?It costs a lot to develop these products and when trials are being vandalised by anti-GM protesters and there are few positive signals from Government and retailers, it puts a lot of companies off investing,? she says.

?They have to decide where to send their money, and that has to be in countries where there is a clear market. At the moment that is not the UK.?

Overcoming obstacles

Prof Foyer says the industry is ?only on the cusp? of what GM can achieve, but, before the products come to market in the UK, scientists will have to overcome staunch opposition from the anti-GM lobby.

Its detractors, such as Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett, say the technology is ?unpredictable? and despite the major advances in science, so little is understood about the way genomes operate, that using GM in food products is too great a risk.

The relationship between genes and groups of genes is so complicated, it is ?very unlikely? complex characteristics like drought resistance or nitrogen fixation can ever be achieved by genetic engineering, he claim.

Dr Janet Cotter, from Greenpeace International?s science policy unit says: ?With GM you are introducing a foreign gene and it is outside of that tightly controlled network used in conventional breeding, so it is completely unpredictable.?



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