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Date:

March 5, 2000

Subject:

Benefits of GM crops in harsh environments - good examples?

 

Hi folks

Like many people on this list, I am asked fairly frequently to give
talks to various public meetings about GM food. Amusingly, I get
roughly equal numbers of invitations to give talks for or against GM
food - and I refuse to do either, saying I will only present the
facts as I see them and let people make up their minds independently.
One issue that has come on several times in these meetings concerns
the potential usage of GM crops in harsh environments - high and low
temperature and high salinity being the obvious ones. This is an
issue often presented as one where GM crops have the potential to
make strong contributions to global agriculture, by bringing into
cultivation land which is currently too marginal to use for
conventional crops.

However, I can find no examples in the literature of where the
technology has yet been demonstrated in the field. I'm aware of the
work from various labs where plants have been engineered to be more
stress resistant in the lab to a variety of environmental insults,
but these examples are generally in Arabidopsis, and often seem
rather far from field demonstration. More worringly, a top plant
physiologist who I spoke with on this issue and who is a world expert
on saline soils and their effects on plant growth, said that as far
as he was concerned everything that he had read was excellent
molecular biology but lousy plant physiology, and that he had seen no
convincing evidence at all that any real progress was beng made in
this area. He pointed out that Arabidopsis in Magenta boxes with the
lids on, growing on medium with a high salt concentration, are a long
way from wheat, rice or maize in the open in a saline soil.

Obviously its a long way from lab experiments to field demonstration
(having been involved in both I'm very aware of this) and it's still
very early days in the development of the technology, but are we
talking ONLY about potential here or are there already some proper
field trials that have been carried out, or that are at least
imminent?

Thanks