POLICY & REGULATION: UK biotech scientist calls for developing useful GE crop varieties
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TITLE: THE COST OF SPURNING GM CROPS IS TOO HIGH
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK
AUTHOR: Jonathan DG Jones
SUMMARY: "I suggest that it is now time to establish a private/public partnership to put GM traits into favoured crops. The top priority should be wheat, but barley, potato, rapeseed and tomato should also be supported. We could test which available GM traits actually do something useful in UK varieties, in UK conditions, and then evaluate them for deregulation in the public sector. If the UK were the first European country to wholeheartedly re-embrace the technology, we could attract substantial inward investment. The argument has to be made that the benefits of the technology far outweigh any hypothetical hazards."
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THE COST OF SPURNING GM CROPS IS TOO HIGH
Prof Jonathan Jones is a group leader at the charitably funded Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. He co-founded Mendel Biotechnology in 1997 where he is still a science adviser, and more recently Norfolk Plant Sciences Ltd. He is on the board of directors of ISAAA and is a science adviser to the 2Blades foundation and the Danforth Centre.
The benefits of the technology far outweigh any risks and we must embrace the opportunities created by it
The term ?genetic modification? provokes widespread fears about the corporate control of agriculture, and of the unknown. However, results from 25 years of EU-funded research show that there is ?no scientific evidence associating GM plants with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms?. This of course does not prove GM methods are 100% safe, but makes clear there is no evidence to the contrary.
This Saturday, anti-GM campaigners plan to offload potatoes outside the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norfolk ? one of the country?s leading crop research institutes ? for a ?photo shoot?. They claim that our research trial of blight-resistant GM potatoes on a plot at JIC, one of only two ongoing GM research trials in the UK, is a ?dangerous experiment?.
The trial involves research on genes from wild potatoes. We have been able to isolate genes from wild species that make them resistant to UK races of the late blight pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, which causes £3.5bn in annual losses worldwide.
Phytophthora has evolved to circumvent all the 100s of resistance genes in most cultivated potato varieties. Resistance genes exist to recognise pathogens, enabling the plant to activate its natural defence mechanisms. The aim of the trial is to test whether resistance genes from wild potatoes will give commercial varieties the ability to detect when they are under attack by UK pathogen races, and then activate defence.
Because of the difficulties of potato genetics, it is essentially impossible to breed a useful trait such as disease resistance from a wild inedible potato into a well-defined variety such as maris piper or desiree while retaining all the characteristics that the market loves in these potatoes. GM is a particularly useful tool because it enables us to introduce a desirable trait without at the same time breeding in unwanted ones.
The blight resistant desiree variety being trialed, that reduces the amount of pesticide the crop needs ? and is rejected by the protesters ? could not have been produced without GM.
We had hoped to create an opportunity to discuss this with the campaigners, as well as other issues they raise in their publicity material. With support from JIC, we invited them to take part in a proper debate.
Disappointingly, they declined. We recognise their right to peaceful protest but have been frustrated that we cannot talk to the organisers, except via exchange of emails.
Meanwhile, the benefits of GM technology are becoming clearer to all. Insect resistant GM cotton and maize has reduced insecticide applications and lowered mycotoxin levels in the maize we eat. Genetic engineering in microbial research has produced new antibiotics and other natural products. JIC?s purple tomatoes contain elevated levels of health-promoting anthocyanins.
Food insecurity and climate change highlight the challenges of sustainably feeding a growing world population. Further research using GM methods opens new possibilities for raising and stabilising yields, improving resistance to pests and diseases and withstanding abiotic stresses such as drought and cold.
But in Europe, while taxpayers? money is still paying to develop useful GM crop traits, taxpayers are not benefitting from their deployment. In contrast, Canada, China, the US and South America are blazing ahead with GM and India is not far behind. The latest figures from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications report 15 million farmers planting GM crops on around 150m hectares in 2010. Many promising GM traits exist, often discovered by academics, but the commercial risks are too great, the costs too high and the rewards too low for the European private sector to invest in taking them forward.
To get around this problem, I suggest that it is now time to establish a private/public partnership to put GM traits into favoured crops. The top priority should be wheat, but barley, potato, rapeseed and tomato should also be supported. We could test which available GM traits actually do something useful in UK varieties, in UK conditions, and then evaluate them for deregulation in the public sector. If the UK were the first European country to wholeheartedly re-embrace the technology, we could attract substantial inward investment.
The argument has to be made that the benefits of the technology far outweigh any hypothetical hazards. We need to think about the cost of not adopting GM as well as the risks, and we must not spurn the great opportunities created by embracing it.