Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - December 23, 2006
* UK: GM Potato Trials Will Go Ahead Despite Location Withdrawal
* GM Spuds to be Commercialized in 2007
* Public Good or Private Gain?
* EU Environment Ministers Vote Against Sound Science
* GM in India: the Battle Over Bt Cotton
* Wine Industry Leaders Explore Biotechnology Issues
* Modify Minds About GM
* Biotechnology in Agriculture - It May Not Be Popular, But We May Need It In Europe
* Agricultural Biotechnology: Monster, Marvel, or just Misunderstood?
UK: GM Potato Trials Will Go Ahead Despite Location Withdrawal
- Farmers Weekly (UK), Dec 22, 2006 http://www.fwi.co.uk
On-farm trials of genetically modified potatoes will go ahead in 2007 despite the withdrawal of the proposed site near Borrowash in Derbyshire. The farm owner had agreed to host the trial of chemical company BASF's late blight resistant potatoes but he pulled out saying that he feared for his personal security.
A spokesman for Derbyshire Police said the force was aware that the intense publicity surrounding the GM trial had made the farmer concerned about his family's safety. Although, the spokesman said, it was understood that no specific threat had been made to the farmer. BASF, the chemical company behind the potato trial, described the farmer's withdrawal as "disappointing and a setback" for the company.
"It was particularly disappointing because we had got so far through the required procedures," a BASF spokesman told Farmers Weekly. He was angry that the farmer had felt pressured into pulling out and he criticised the requirement to publish Ordnance Survey map grid references for on-farm GM sites.
"We have to provide four-figure grid references and later in the procedures a six-figure reference in the interest of openness and transparency. "That exposes anyone hosting the trial to publicity and makes it difficult for all concerned."
But he announced that BASF was on the verge of agreeing a new site for the potato trial. "We have been searching for a new site and there will be an on-farm GM potato trial planted next spring," he told Farmers Weekly. "We will be making an announcement fairly shortly into the New Year," he added.
Anti-GM campaigner Pete Riley joined BASF in decrying those who used intimidation as a means of getting GM trials stopped. But he questioned that there was any need for blight resistant GM potatoes. "The trials are unnecessary because there are already many blight resistant potato varieties on the market and in the pipeline that are produced by conventional breeding," said Mr Riley of GM Freeze.
"All GM potatoes will do is jeopardise consumer confidence in the British potato. Farmers do not need to have their market undermined. We don't need GM spuds."
Genetically Modified Spuds to be Commercialized in 2007
- Eurekalert!, December 29, 2006 http://www.eurekalert.org
The first commercial crop of genetically modified potatoes will be planted in 2007. Industry bods and green campaigners alike agree that E.U. approval of BASF's Amflora potatoes will come in time for spring launch and cultivation, reports Marina Murphy in Chemistry & Industry, the magazine of the Society of Chemical Industry.
Amflora potatoes, which have been modified to be particularly suited for the production of papers and adhesive, are not intended for human consumption. In contrast to conventional potatoes, they contain only amylopectin, as opposed to both amylopectin and amylose starches.
"This is the first potato of its kind," according to Thorston Storck, global project manager at BASF Plant Sciences. "We have tested these potatoes over 10 years...And at this stage, we are optimistic of getting permission to grow and sell these potatoes in time for planting next year," he said.
Claire Oxborrow, GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, agreed that approval in time for spring planting was likely. Even without a qualified majority by the regulatory committee, she said the potatoes would ultimately be approved. But Oxborrow also expressed concerns that Amflora potatoes could find their way into the food supply, especially given that a separate application by BASF for food and feeding is not far behind this one. She said that safety should be a concern because rat feeding studies showed statistically significant differences in white blood cells and spleen weight between female animals fed the transgenic potato and those given a diet containing the parental cultivar. "These differences should be thoroughly investigated to ensure that they will not lead to human health impacts," she said.
Currently there are six countries in the E.U. where GM crops are grown commercially: Romania, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic. They all grow GM maize except Romania, which grows GM soya.
Public Good or Private Gain?
- Denis Murphy, the-BA (UK), 2006. (via Vivian Moses) http://www.the-ba.net
'Denis Murphy is worried about plant science research'
There has often been an uneasy relationship between taxpayer-funded research for public-good applications versus its development for profit in the private sector. The upsetting of this balance in the UK may be at the core of many of our current concerns, from GM crops to the funding mechanisms of scientific research in general.
Plant science research and its application for crop improvement illustrate my point (see ‘Cuddling, calculating and commercialising the biosciences’, Monica Winstanley, SPA March 2006, p 16). It can be argued that, in these areas, the UK is respectively a world leader and a global casualty.
Over the past century, the UK and USA were important global powerhouses of plant science research and its application for crop improvement. This paradigm of publicly-funded plant science research designed to be exploited both as a public good and, in some circumstances (such as the US hybrid maize) for private profit, started to unravel in the 1970s as plant breeders’ rights were introduced.
During the 1980s, the UK went further in privatising or closing many of its leading crop-related research centres, culminating in the sale of PBI to Unilever in 1989. Since then, the dwindling band of remaining research institutes have tended to focus more on basic aspects of plant science and, with a few notable exceptions, there is almost no practical plant breeding research in the UK public sector.
One of the consequences has been a loss in our capacity to exploit basic research for long-term use as public goods, especially in developing countries. Instead, new technologies like GM crops have been exclusively captured by the private sector and used for short-term commercial gain, for example to produce herbicide-tolerant crops.
In the UK, the 1980s privatisation agenda proved to be deeply flawed when applied to plant breeding, where relatively immature markets were unable to assimilate the new developments. Instead of creating a vigorous commercial plant-breeding sector, we now have a situation where virtually all of the companies have abandoned the UK.
Since we have also destroyed our public-sector breeding capacity, the UK is now in the strange situation of being a world-class producer of basic plant research that has lost the wherewithal to apply the benefits of such knowledge for crop improvement.
The remaining UK plant research centres tend to focus on model plants like Arabidopsis, rather than crops, and on short-term (1-3 year) government contracts. Such contracts often address current public concerns, such as GM crop segregation, rather than more considered longer-term projects aimed at topics like crop improvement for the growing amount of saline or arid soils where public-good research could really make a difference.
Reasons for concern
Does any of this matter? I think it does.
Firstly, UK taxpayers might question why they are funding basic research in plant science while the country has lost its capacity to exploit its future benefits. Secondly, we will still have to feed ourselves in the coming uncertain decades of possible climate change, but we have largely lost our ability to breed new crops for this purpose.
Thirdly, the public sector needs to ‘recapture’ technologies like genetic engineering for use in public-good programmes that are of little interest to commercial companies. Such initiatives are now under way in the US and Australia, but not so far in the UK.
As with previous crop improvement technologies, the key to the future success of GM might lie in its application as a public good rather than exclusively for private profit.
Denis J Murphy is Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Glamorgan, Wales. The issues raised in this article are discussed in more detail in his forthcoming book, Plant Biotechnology and Breeding: Societal Context and the Future of Agriculture (Cambridge University Press, early 2007)
EU Environment Ministers Vote Against Sound Science
- Adeline Farrelly, Simon Barber and Nathalie Moll, EuropaBio, Dec. 21, 2006 Via Agnet
The EU's Environment Council has today delivered a blow to the prospects for growth and jobs in Europe, according to EuropaBio. By backing Austria's illegal ban on the cultivation of EU-approved GM crops, the Council has seriously damaged the credibility of the regulatory system on which much of Europe's innovative and industrial capacity relies, says the European biotechnology industry association.
Today's vote denies Austrian farmers the freedom of choice and the possibility to grow GM if they want to. "At issue is whether scientific opinions are to be respected and whether decision-making is to be rational in Europe", said Johan Vanhemelrijck, EuropaBio's Secretary General.
The European Commission had asked the Council to overturn the Austrian ban on two genetically-modified maize seeds which have repeatedly been pronounced safe after protracted EU reviews. One of the products, Mon810, is designed to resist the European corn borer, a widespread moth larva that can destroy crops. It is already grown in Spain, France, Germany, Portugal and the Czech Republic without any safety or environmental issues, thus demonstrating that Austria's objections are without foundation. The other, T25, permits farmers to use a broad-spectrum herbicide for weed control without damaging the crop. (Details of the products and their safety assessment appear below.)
But a qualified majority of member states today rejected the European Commission call for the prohibition to be repealed. "The EU's own scientific assessments have repeatedly made clear that there is no reason to consider that the products constitute a risk to human health or the environment", said Johan Vanhemelrijck. "The Council is undermining the authority of its own expert advisors. Europe is the only region in the world that votes on its science, the community must start to believe its own scientific opinions."
This is the second time the Council has refused Commission proposals to overturn these illegal bans. Already in June 2005 a qualified majority of member states upheld Austria's position, and required further information.
"Today's decision by the Council displays an alarming indifference to the EU's own rules, and to common sense", said Simon Barber, Director of EuropaBio. "The further information the Council requested in 2005 has now been provided, and it indicates unambiguously that the products carry none of the risks alleged. But still the Council declines to follow the advice of the EU's own expert advisory bodies. This departure from rational decision-making is disconcerting - not only for these two products, but for every innovator in every industrial sector that is subject to EU regulation. If the EU ceases to follow its own rules, innovators and investors are left in a state of profound uncertainty - and that is deeply discouraging for growth and for jobs. It will be no surprise if this continued disarray in the EU induces more companies to move their research and investment abroad to regions with more predictable and consistent regulatory regimes".
EuropaBio points out that the knowledge-based bio-economy, repeatedly recognised by the EU to be a crucial element in the renewed jobs and growth strategy, can fully deliver on its potential only if the regulatory framework is consistent and consistently implemented. The European Commission has recognised this, and so too have many member states. But other member states continue to put these opportunities at risk by allowing local political considerations to distort the decision-making process.
GM in India: the Battle Over Bt Cotton
- TV Padma, SCIDEV.net, Dec.20, 2006. Full commentary at http://www.scidev.net/content/features/eng/gm-in-india-the-battle-over-bt-cotton.cfm
The chequered history of Bt cotton in India - marked by pest resistance and farmers' suicides - has polarised opinions over the technology, reports TV Padma.
'Bt and the beast' is how cotton scientist Keshav Raj Kranthi refers to the controversial genetically modified cotton so widely planted in India. The 'beast' is the American bollworm - a moth larva that devours cotton bolls - while Bt is its nemesis, a protein crystal from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.
Four years after the Indian government allowed farmers to grow Bt cotton, which is genetically modified to contain the Bt toxin, the government's department of biotechnology and the biotechnology industry say it has led to decreasing use of insecticides and improved yields.
But another picture of India's Bt saga is emerging - one that points to a pressing need for an enquiry into just how successful genetically modified (GM) technology has been in India.
There are warning signs, for instance, of the bollworm's resistance to the Bt toxin. The media and nongovernmental organisations point to a worrying rate of suicide among cotton farmers in parts of India, though a direct link between the deaths and Bt cotton has not been established. Further, the monitoring of where and how the cotton is grown is also poor, and a market for legal and illegal, fake and real, Bt cotton has sprung into being.
Given GM's chequered history in the country, and the polarised opinions of the pro-GM government and industry, and anti-GM activists, a serious, inclusive scientific debate is often impossible. - cut-
Wine Industry Leaders Explore Issues Surrounding Biotechnology and Winegrapes, Consider Consumer Reactions, Regulatory Issues
Questions Raised: How Would Consumers React? Would the Production of GE Grapes Pose
Unique Regulatory Issues? How Would Growers of GE, Conventional, Organic Crops Coexist?
In July 2006, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and the American Vineyard Foundation held a workshop in San Francisco, CA examining issues relating to the potential adoption of biotechnology in the winegrape and wine industries.
Over the course of the two-day event, grape growers, winemakers, grape and yeast research scientists, federal and state government representatives and agricultural commodity and specialty crop producers gathered to discuss the scientific, regulatory and marketing issues associated with the potential development of genetically engineered (GE) winegrapes.
Some of the key issues discussed in the proceedings include:
* The advantages in production for winegrape growers and vintners that may be realized using agricultural biotechnology must be balanced against the need to ensure environmental and food safety.
* It remains unclear if wine consumers, particularly those in overseas markets, will be willing to embrace products derived from biotechnology.
* While GE winegrapes remain in development, GE yeasts for use in winemaking have been developed, have successfully undergone regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. and Canada, and are ready for commercialization, making discussion of these issues very timely.
An overview of the conference agenda and the full paper from the workshop, entitled Grapes, Wine, and the Application of Biotechnology Issues, Opportunities and Challenges, can be viewed at: http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0709
Modify Minds About GM
- Peter Ker, The Age (Australia), Dec. 22, 2006 http://www.theage.com.au/
Victorians are vastly uneducated and uninformed about gene technology issues and need a major campaign to bring them up to speed, according to a report tabled in State Parliament this week.
The report was tabled in the same week The Age revealed that genetically modified wheat could be growing in Victoria for the first time within six months. The State Government's Department of Primary Industries has applied to grow up to 30 lines of GM wheat at two sites, near Horsham and Mildura.
The wheat at the centre of the proposal would be genetically modified to cope with severe drought. But a statutory review of the existing Gene Technology Act that was tabled on Tuesday warned such projects face stiff opposition from an ignorant population. "There are glaring deficiencies of information and education in the Australian community on gene technology," the report said. "This is a significant problem."
A panel of three senior Victorian experts and bureaucrats -- former GHS Victoria boss Professor Bob Williamson, Equal Opportunity Commission chief executive Dr Diane Sisely, and Victoria's former Crown Counsel, Professor Peter Sallmann -- recommended state and federal governments fund a major advertising campaign.
Biotechnology in Agriculture - It May Not Be Popular, But We May Need It In Europe
- Dr Brian Johnson GMO Safety, Sept. 14, 2006 (from Prof. Vivian Moses) http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/debate/533.docu.html
By training I am an ecological geneticist. I am also a lifelong Green who has worked in nature conservation for thirty years. I led the teams that successfully saved the English peat bogs from destruction and organised their restoration, and I headed up the team of dedicated people who saved the internationally important Somerset wetlands from the threat of intensive agriculture.
Until recently I was head of agricultural technologies with English Nature, who first raised environmental concerns about the use of GM herbicide tolerant crops. With a colleague from Defra, Linda Smith, I initiated and helped to organise the largest ecological experiment in Britain, the Farm Scale Evaluations of GM herbicide tolerant crops. I have never worked for a biotechnology company, nor have I ever received funding from one. I say all this because what I have to say to you today may at first sight seem not to fit into my Green principles, but I hope I may at the very least promote some deeper debate about what we want ecologically from agricultural landscapes, and what tools we could use to get there.
I hope that as ecologists you will not take much convincing that agriculture needs to change if we are to sustain food production and enhance the environment. Agriculture is to my mind not sustainable, however you wish to define that elusive concept. Our food production, processing and distribution rely on large inputs of finite resources such as fossil fuels and chemical fertilisers. Agricultural management systems cause great harm to the environment; farmland biodiversity continues to fall towards zero, farms produce large quantities of greenhouse gases; and outputs from farming are some of the main causes of water pollution in our rural landscapes.
With increasing climate change, agriculture increasingly relies on irrigation, with some 70% of all water extracted for human use going into agriculture. We have known all this for at least forty years yet the main cropping methods used in Europe have not substantially changed in that time, if anything they have become more harmful as farmers strive to win the battle for sunlight between their crops and wildlife.
So why have we not produced new cropping technologies that produce sufficient food, but are far less harmful to the environment? One reason may be that agricultural research aimed at this goal has been poorly funded over the past forty years with the lions share of money going towards production led research. To my mind this is a failure of European strategy at all levels and a disgrace, because we are all paying far too high a price for our food, not only in the shops but also in terms of the hidden costs of agriculture and in the damage that has been done to our environment.
But there is another important reason why we have not produced better agriculture, and that is our failure as scientists and policy makers to think radically about how crops are grown. Even in organic systems, we are trapped in a mindset of always adapting the land to the needs of crops rather than adapting the crops to the needs of the land. To some extent this is understandable because in the past adapting the land has been the cheapest and in some cases the only option, especially in the false economics of farming subsidies that not only distort how agriculture is conducted in Europe but also cause enormous hardship and poverty in the developing world.
But that cushioned economic situation is changing fast partly due to CAP reform and partly because of stiff competition from abroad, together with the increasing realisation that the hidden costs of agriculture need to be addressed. I believe that the EU is right to go down this path, but it may have profound implications for agricultural land management. As agriculture moves towards free markets and relies less on subsidies, farms may become more industrialised to compete or have to find methods of reducing inputs. Now is the time that we need more than ever to think about changing the way we produce food.
New cropping methods almost inevitably need new crop varieties. The radical change from spring-sown crops to winter cropping that now dominates commodity cereal production is a good example, where new cold tolerant varieties were combined with new fungicides to enable the change to be made. We now know that this change to winter cropping seriously reduced farmland bird populations, and the diversity and abundance of arable plants and insects. We are seeing a similar process underway with the development of new forage maize varieties that enable farmers to grow the crop further north than ever before. These are production led developments, not orientated towards sustainability.
How could changing cropping systems produce more sustainable agriculture? Here are some ideas that I have gleaned from discussions with several leading agriculturalists worldwide.
Firstly we need to address issues around the use of finite resources. For example, why do we continue to plough land annually to accommodate annual crops? Why not try to make food crops perennials with high disease resistance? They would not only dramatically cut fossil fuel inputs but should avoid the soil degradation that is now so common in arable areas. We are beginning to understand the genetics of perennity and we have more and more knowledge about disease resistance genes, so we are almost ready to apply some of this knowledge to crops. There is also the issue of the increasing use of irrigation in agriculture.
New drought resistance genes are being discovered almost monthly, mostly from research in the Far East and the Americas. Some examples are the trehalose genes used by Ajay Garg & Ray Wu at in rice at Cornell and the DREB/RD29a complexes used by Alesandro Pellegrineschi and his co-workers in wheat at CIMMYT. As you can see, they have already been used to construct experimental crop plants that are highly drought resistant yet still produce good (in some cases better) yields. Most of the debate about their use has centred around the fact that they can be used in developing countries where severe drought threatens the lives of whole populations, but what seems to have been missed is that these crops use far less water to develop normally, in some cases over 70% less water. Given the fact that climate change is producing much drier summers in Europe, we need to conserve precious water in the near future, and using drought resistant crops is a good way to achieve this.
To make agriculture even more sustainable we also need to use fewer chemicals on our land. To produce crops that fix their own nitrogen seems a distant dream but some surprising research results this year have brought the dream closer to reality. Much closer to reality is the discovery of new pest and disease resistance genes in a range of plants and other organisms. Some of these can already be transferred to crops and produce a useful tool in the arms race between or crops and the organisms that also want to eat them. Transferring pest and disease resistance traits to commodity crops, fruit and vegetables could give us 'quasi-organic' cropping systems.
I could easily add to this wish list of desirable crop traits but I do not have time. By now you will have realised that many of these traits do not occur naturally in the gene pools of our traditional crops or in those of their ancestors. So we are unlikely to produce crops for a new agriculture using conventional breeding methods, or even by using mutagenesis and marker-assisted breeding. Even if we could, we may not have the time. Biotechnology can quickly and easily give us the crops we need for a new more environmentally sustainable agriculture.
So we have a stark choice: either we continue with more of the same damaging agriculture, or we start to think about radical changes in cropping methods using new varieties. I argue for the latter: we need to think "out of the box" and soon.
We are told by the media that there is deep opposition to biotechnology in Europe; but is this really true? We eagerly accept the products of medical biotechnology. Only last week there was a story about the first successful transformation of human cells to combat skin cancer. Humans have been eating food produced by transgenic microorganisms for nearly twenty years, yet there is still opposition to biotechnology as a technology.
It is difficult to think of a technology that does not carry risks (most of them unknown until the technology 'matures'), is not exploited by large companies, and could not be used for both damaging and beneficial purposes. I consider opposition to technologies per se as philosophically unsound and unreasonable, taking Heidegger's view that we can only use technologies wisely when we know enough about their effects, including their potential risks and benefits. Heidegger did not use the term, but he was defining the concept of technological sustainability, a concept that is fast becoming a new societal moral.
Sustainability is not necessarily an absolute concept in the sense that we can ever achieve it, because our population densities and high resource demands make for an increasingly unsustainable environment. But we can produce systems that are more sustainable than those in the past and we have the ability to be able to quantify the key characteristics of such systems in ecological terms such as impacts on carbon balance and biodiversity. Yet in Europe we have regulatory systems for transgenic organisms that do not take these characteristics into account but focus almost exclusively on risk assessment. Regulatory systems worldwide (with the creditable exception of the Canadian novel plant regulatory system) do not assess risks against benefits and do not include assessment of novel organisms produced by non-transgenic methods. Some of these methods, such as mutagenesis and hybridity, produce organisms with genomes that are radically different from their ancestors and which contain genes that are not only not found in wild gene pools but are also completely novel.
With the possible exception of GM herbicide tolerant crops in the UK, we have introduced new cropping systems into our landscapes with almost no prior knowledge of their impacts on biodiversity, soils and pollution. Decades after introduction we have seen damage to bird populations, wild plants and insects and society spends millions of Euros each year trying to treat water from aquifers polluted by these cropping systems.
In my view we need to move to a regulatory system that not only screens all novel organisms for potential risks, but also performs a sustainability assessment of the organism and its management system, comparing the key characteristics of the system with those of the 'conventional' system. Where cropping systems are concerned this could include impacts of biodiversity, carbon balance of the growing cycle, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, and outputs such as air and water pollutants. I would also add assessment of the rates and especially the impacts of gene flow to other crops and to wild relatives. There is a thriving industry measuring rates of gene flow, but I am much more interested in potential impacts on fitness and on food webs and I would like to see far more research in this intellectually challenging area.
Although I argue that it is unreasonable to oppose biotechnology per se, it is however reasonable to be sceptical about the products of biotechnology, especially where risks from food safety and impacts on the environment are concerned. In Europe we have a rigorous regulatory system for transgenic organisms that demands evidence on gene flow, environmental and food safety, and compares 'conventional' against 'transgenic' management systems, yet we continue to reject the technology itself even when, as in the case of GM herbicide tolerant maize, the management system has been demonstrated to be better for the environment, and the maize is as safe as cattle feed as the conventional crop.
This rejection of biotechnology has no scientific or rational basis, and Europeans are rejecting a potentially powerful tool for producing better agriculture. As an ecologist and environmentalist, I cannot see the sense in this, and urge you all to reconsider this position and to campaign for more publicly funded research into the potential use of biotechnology and other new breeding methods in the search for more environmentally sustainable agriculture. I do not expect you all to agree with this view but I want to keep this debate alive and vigorous. Using biotechnology may turn out to be as important as the other great revolutions in agriculture have been in past, so the topic needs to be taken seriously, as it is in many other parts of the world. We can watch and wait - but for how long can we tolerate the ongoing damage to our environment? Let us reopen a scientifically mature debate on biotechnology in agriculture, and let us as scientists debate the subject without the distraction of campaigns against a technology that in industry, medicine and agriculture worldwide is beginning to show great promise in achieving goals that have previously eluded us.
Dr. Brian Johnson was for many years associated with the environmental orgqanisation English Nature. There he was mainly concerned with the effect of agriculture on biodicersity. He initiated the largest ecological study in Great Britain, the Farm Scale Evaluations, and was involved in its execution. The study examined the effects of cultivating GM plants on biodiversity.
This text is the presentation with which Brian Johnson opened the 36th Annual Conference of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland in Bremen on September 14th, 2006
Agricultural Biotechnology: Monster, Marvel, or just Misunderstood?
- Denis J. Murphy, Public Service Review - Devolved Government, Nov 2006
In this brief article, I will argue that agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) and its current treatment by both national and devolved administrations in the UK are symptomatic of a more general lack of understanding of many important scientific issues that is sometimes coupled with an over-willingness to play to the populist gallery. The latter tendency is especially apparent is some aspects of political treatment of one particular aspect of agbiotech, namely GM crops. Here, I will focus on the treatment of GM crops in Wales as an example of the collision of new technologies with public concerns and political action. The aim is to bring out some wider lessons that can be learned for future science-public dialogues, and especially the often-problematic discourse with local politicians.
What is agbiotech?
Agbiotech is hugely misunderstood, not only by the vast majority of the general public and politicians, but also by many scientists. Most people equate agbiotech with the much-maligned GM crops, as promoted by a few large multinational corporations. As such, it regarded as the antithesis of organic production of crops, which is popularly (and often wrongly) imagined as the domain of small local suppliers. This apparent dichotomy has led to an official policy of GM rejectionism in Wales, coupled with the active promotion and public subsidy of the organic business sector.
And yet, when I started doing research on crop improvement in the 1980s, the UK was one of the centres of a new agbiotech movement that was largely driven by small local startup companies in places like Belgium, Netherlands, and the UK. At this time, many of us in the research community looked forward to a future when our new crop varieties, some of which would be GM, could provide a renewable, environmentally friendly source of a huge range of more nutritious foods as well as host of non-food products from cheap vaccines to biodegradable plastics. In addition, none of us saw any reason for conflict between the aims of crop breeders, whether they used radiation mutagenesis (non-GM) or transgenesis (GM) and the ideals of organic producers.
These early dreams never quite died, but the events of the past two decades have reinforced the often unpredictable connections between science and society that scientists, business people, and policymakers ignore at their peril. We have learned that, just because a new technology works well, its success in the marketplace is by no means guaranteed. Indeed, inferior technologies can sometimes displace better ones, as we have seen with Betamax versus VHS video recorders, or Macintosh versus Windows computer systems.
In the case of agbiotech, the new technologies are not necessarily superior to existing crop breeding methods, but they can extend their range and hold out new possibilities for crop production, many of which are especially relevant to developing countries. Moreover, many agbiotech methods have nothing to do with gene transfer ('genetic engineering') but are more akin to the kinds of DNA fingerprinting that are now in such common use in forensic science and medical diagnostics. Even today, by far the most effective use of agbiotech, and one with which I have been involved in Southeast Asia, is MAS, or marker-assisted selection. Here, molecular markers and other high-tech tools are used to speed up and widen the scope of crop breeding around the world but no GM methods are involved.
Things go wrong for agbiotech
As late as 1998, UK agbiotech seemed to have weathered the initial protests of the nascent anti-GM movement. At this stage, UK consumers were still relatively accepting of GM food products, and an openly labelled (as GM) tomato paste (made by Zeneca and distributed by major UK retailers) was even a modest commercial success. Indeed, most of the earliest organised opposition to GM crop imports came, not from the UK, but from environmentalist pressure groups on the European Continent. However, the presence of unlabelled imported GM products in the UK soon heightened public unease here as well. This unease was then skilfully exploited by professional anti-GM campaigners. There is little doubt that there was a highly organised and well-funded international campaign against GM crops by professional bodies such as Greenpeace in the late 1990s.
However, the fact that the anti-GM campaign largely succeeded in Europe was more to do with the consumer-related deficiencies of the GM business model than to the efforts of the anti-GM lobby. In the wake of the backlash from the Brent Spar incident, where Greenpeace had misjudged the environmental and PR consequences of halting the disposal of an offshore oil platform in the North Sea, environmentalist groups were looking for new targets for direct action that would garner them more public sympathy and much needed support. It was partially the weakness of the GM paradigm that attracted the attentions of such activists in the first place. Unlike the family automobile or imported consumer electronics, GM crops were perceived as having few friends among consumers, retailers, or politicians, and were therefore seen by lobbyists as an easier target than arguably equally monopolistic multinational companies that supplied consumers with their petrol or consumer electronics. The result was a remarkably successful anti-GM campaign in the late 1990s that still resonates with the public and politicians alike, especially in local government.
Agbiotech and the devolved administrations
It has been interesting to see the way official reaction to agbiotech has varied in devolved administrations across Europe. In the UK, the Scottish Executive has generally remained aloof from active involvement in the GM issue but, in contrast, in Wales the GM issue became a prominent matter of public policy almost from the start of the life of the new Welsh Assembly. Following intensive and skilful lobbying by local pressure groups, a 'GM-free Wales' policy was adopted in 2000 by the administration. As First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, stated: "Our policy … is to restrict any intention to grow GM crops commercially in Wales as far as is lawful according to European Union legislation. We also intend to continue to market Wales as an area of the European Union where the agricultural produce is GM-free." This very public stance was vigorously promoted despite the fact that Wales has an overwhelmingly (90% by area) pastoral economy and less than 0.4% of its agricultural area had even the remotest chance of being planted with GM crops. In contrast to its treatment of GM farming, organic farming has been strongly promoted by the Assembly, with the Welsh Agri-Food Partnership setting a target (unfulfilled) of 10% of the agricultural sector by 2005.
The seeming preoccupation of the public and the Assembly in Wales with GM crops and organic crops is strikingly at variance with the current priorities of farmers themselves. For example, in November 2006, the Home-Grown Cereals Authority published a survey of 1200 UK farmers in which GM crops and organic crops were joint bottom of their wish list of 27 research topics they wished to see funded. On the other hand, the widespread vilification of agbiotech because of the GM crops issue has driven many companies and researchers away from Wales and the wider UK, as well as effectively halting any development of the considerable amount of world class basic plant science research that is still being carried out in our universities and institutes. What this means is that academic researchers are being increasingly isolated from the application of their discoveries for wealth creation and social progress, both locally and in developing countries, many of whom greatly need such expertise.
An isolated public research sector
We should remember that, during the twentieth century, public sector researchers in universities and institutes made many significant scientific discoveries, such as antibiotics and Green Revolution crops, that soon became widely available as non-patented 'public goods'. In the plant science sector, the paradigm of publicly-funded research designed to be exploited both as public goods and for private profit, started to unravel in the 1980s, as the UK privatised or closed many of its leading crop-related research centres. Since then, the dwindling band of remaining research institutes have tended to focus more on basic aspects of plant science and, with a few notable exceptions, there is almost no practical plant breeding research in the UK public sector.
One of the consequences has been a loss in our capacity to exploit basic research for long-term use as public goods, especially in developing countries. Instead, new technologies like GM crops have been exclusively captured by the private sector and used for short-term commercial gain, e.g. to produce herbicide-tolerant crops. The remaining UK plant research centres tend to focus on model plants like Arabidopsis, rather than crops, and on short-term (1-3 year) government contracts . Such contracts often address current public concerns, such as GM crop segregation, rather than more considered longer term projects aimed at topics like crop improvement for the growing amount of saline or arid soils where public-good research could really make a difference .
What can we do now?
Does any of this matter? I think it does. Firstly, the UK taxpayer might question why they are funding basic research in plant science while the country has lost the capacity (and seemingly the will) to exploit its future benefits . Secondly, we will still have to feed ourselves in the coming uncertain decades of possible climate change but we now have largely lost our ability to breed new crops for this purpose. Thirdly, the public sector needs to 'recapture' technologies like genetic engineering for use in public-good programmes that are of little interest to commercial companies . As with previous crop improvement technologies, such as mutagenesis or wide crossing, the key to the future success of GM might lie in its application as a public good rather than exclusively for private profit.
Rather than simply vilifying agbiotech and GM crops, we need to foster a greater understanding of the wider opportunities (and possible risks) that they might bring, especially in the context of public 'open-source'-like ownership of some of the newer aspect of such technologies. We should also embark upon the renewal of the practical public-good mission of plant science research that was responsible for most of the outstanding achievements of agriculture over the past century as it increased food production more than ten-fold to keep pace with the expanding world population. With the likelihood of another three billion mouths to feed over the next four decades, we cannot afford the luxury of ignoring potentially useful new technologies. It is the responsibility of scientists to be more proactive in explaining their research and its implications, but we also need a greater sense of vision and leadership from politicians across the board.
1 In 2004, a BBSRC working party stated that "that BBSRC should make the transfer of knowledge between plant and crop science a high priority." http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/news/reports/crop_sci_review12_05_04.pdf
2 This point was made in a 2004 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Report into BBSRC, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmsctech/6/602.htm
3 In a report published in June 2006, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee castigated the UK Research Councils for a perceived lack of effectiveness in the promotion of knowledge transfer from basic research into its wider use in society. (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmsctech.htm)
4 Such initiatives are now underway in the US and Australia, but no so far in the UK.
Denis J Murphy is Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Glamorgan, Wales and author of over 250 scientific papers, chapters and books. He is a panellist on the research assessment exercise (RAE) that is currently responsible for the appraisal of UK university research output. He is also an advisor to a variety of UK and overseas government departments and agencies, including the European Parliament and the United Nations.
Many of the issues raised in this article are discussed in more detail in his forthcoming book: Plant Biotechnology and Breeding: Societal Context and the Future of Agriculture (Cambridge University Press, early 2007)