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GMOs: recent developments & organic breeding alternatives
The recent GM wheat trial has raised familiar issues and re-awakened concerns in many people.
This session will consider the trial and other developments and place them in a context of political
inappropriateness. A key part of the session will be the presentation of viable alternative approaches.
Bruce Pearce (ORC): Chair
The European attitude to GM foods remains negative; mandatory labelling of products containing consisting of or containing GMOs was introduced in 1997, and effectively killed the market for these products. GM-derived animal foods, however (such as eggs from poultry fed on GM maize) do not have to be labelled and are still widely sold, and consumer awareness of this is thought to be low. Non-GM soya costs 20% more than GM.
In Europe, only 0.1% of land is currently planted to GM crops but the indications are that this figure will increase. Several GM seed lines are going through the approval process currently, and indications are that the European Food Safety Authority will approve Aquabounty’s GM salmon. At the same time, Lawrence said, no EU Member States have kept their promise to introduce follow-up monitoring procedures for transgenes released onto the market.
Research activities on transgenic technologies are flourishing, but there are concerns that it is insufficiently transparent. The amount of money spent by BBSRC on GM research is not explicitly disclosed. Research into transgenic wheat being carried out by Rothamsted has been justified in different ways at different times, suggesting disingenuousness.
The voice of GM research and development in the UK tends to be publicly-funded research institutes such as Rothamsted and the John Innes Centre, rather than the private companies with a strong financial interest in the success of such technologies, including Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and others. Pete Riley and Lawrence Woodward both speculated that this may be disguising collaboration between the public and private bodies, and strategic concealment of the involvement of the latter, since public trust in research institutions is higher than trust in biotechnology companies.
Speakers discussed some of the best-known UK-based GM research projects and examined the alternatives available. Rothamsted’s project to develop aphid-resistant spring wheat was the first example. Aphid infestation is not considered an economically significant problem in wheat, particularly spring wheat, in addition to which a Defra-funded research programme published in December 2004 detailed several agroecology-based IPM-based solutions for aphid control, not at all specific to the organic sector.
Virus resistance has been the target of GM potato breeding, but Thomas’s data from a Finnish case study showed that while plant breeding for resistance can decrease the virulence of the disease, the vector (aphids) is a much more important factor and can be controlled by a number of strategies including the addition of straw mulch, which also has positive side effects. One audience member pointed out that this might be too labour-intensive for some farmers, but Thomas responded that the strategy was in fact taken up, with success, by farmers in the area.
Thomas also briefly discussed the question of breeding for drought-proof wheat, suggesting that it is poor risk management to invest heavily in adapting to a single condition such as drought, without thinking about adaptation to the opposite condition (i.e. flooding) as well, given the trends in climate fluctuations. Reliance on a single genetic mechanism is also a higher-risk strategy than deploying a range of agronomic and breeding measures. Nonetheless, Thomas said, the number of recommended pest-control strategies appearing in agronomic textbooks has been decreasing over the last five decades, which is a cause of concern.
- There is an increasing prevalence of GM presence in consumer products on today’s markets, even in Europe.
- Many alternatives exist to address the applications of GM technologies and have been investigated and proven in funded research, such as IPM measures for aphid control in wheat.
- Some applications of GM technology, such as drought-resistant wheat, are based on a flawed understanding of ecosystems and the environment and are unlikely to help farmers.
- Large funding and research bodies seem to be ignoring systems-based, agroecological solutions and even existing, conventionally-bred germplasm in their rush to reap rewards from big biotech investments and patents.
Individual speaker presentations and abstracts
Predictions of future food crisis brought about by worsening climate change, more people and dwindling supplies of non-renewable resources have resulted in resurgence in the promotion of GM crops as a solution. This presentation looks at what is in the pipeline for development and some of the politics behind the current push to rehabilitate GM crops in the UK and Europe. Where do the UK governments stand? And whatever happened to Monsanto? Finally possibly significant events in 2013 will be summarised and priorities for action emphasised.
An energetic and unprincipled push is currently underway by the UK government and research establishment to foist GM technology on a wary and sceptical public. Whatever merit GMOs might have, the claims being made for it are over exaggerated and the risks understated by politicians and pro-GM researchers. The media are largely unquestioning. Alternatives to GM do exist but are being ignored. This presentation will review these issues and using the GM wheat trial at Rothamsted highlight how organic and agro-ecological alternatives are being side-lined.
Plant breeding, while being a key area of agricultural activities, can only make limited contributions to solving complex agricultural problems. When focussing on the functions that plant breeding aims to deliver it becomes evident that many options of agricultural management might have higher potential than plant breeding and the mere selection of specific plant genotypes. Taking the goal of low aphid infestation in cereals as an example, I will show that there are plenty of well researched management options besides plant breeding that can tackle this problem in a successful way. As a further example of alternatives to plant breeding, I show how the approach of engineering communities, i.e. the targeted usage and combination of plant traits in a dynamic and diverse plant community can deliver multiple services in an agro-ecosystem. Finally, I highlight plant breeding approaches using conventional crossing methods that are able address the increasingly important problem of coping with changing and fluctuating environments. Here as in other areas, diversification proves to be a key to resilient agricultural production.