NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

What’s happening with GM?

Posted on 17/03/2015 by Jim Orson

I made a big mistake at the end of a recent blog when I mentioned that we could soon expect to cultivate GM glyphosate tolerant oilseed rape. This optimism chimed with recent reports stating that we could soon grow waves of GM crops now that the EU has signed a new law on the cultivation of them. This law enables member states to opt out of or ban authorised GM crops. This means that decisions to allow cultivation of authorised GMs will be taken by member states rather than seeking a seemingly impossible ideal to achieve pan-EU decisions to cultivate such crops.

The hope is that this will encourage the EU Commission to bring forward votes on applications for GM crop cultivation; some applications have been stuck in the system for more than a decade.

However, many applications for cultivation were withdrawn some time ago. These include applications to cultivate blight-resistant potatoes, GM high starch potatoes and glyphosate-tolerant beet. It appears that there is no glyphosate tolerant oilseed rape in the EU approval system. What remains in the system is Bt (insect resistant) and herbicide tolerant maize. Currently corn borers, the target for BT maize, have limited distribution in the UK. These insect pests damage the stems (see image) and cobs of maize and increase the risk of mycotoxins in the grain. Whilst there are no major weed control problems in UK maize production, the ability to use glyphosate may reduce overall growing costs and it will certainly ease the management of the crop. In addition, with sympathetic management, glyphosate tolerant maize may enable the introduction of some biodiversity into a crop that has currently very low levels. 

So what of the wave of new GM crops? It is arguable whether it is worth the companies going through the registration costs to get EU approval to cultivate GM crops if there are only a handful of countries in the EU minded to allow them to be sown. The regulations are unnecessarily complex, expensive and restrictive and I suppose we will have to wait and see what happens. In the meantime, we will slip further behind the rest of the world in producing food more efficiently whilst minimising environmental impact. 

Perhaps of equal concern is the queue of animal feed crops containing the more recently introduced GM developments awaiting approval for import into the EU. There is always a natural slow down in decision making when an EU commission approaches the end of its tenure and a new one starts up. However, there have been no such approvals in the last year. Recently, Juncker, the new president of the EU commission, has asked for a review of decision-making on GMOs which will further exacerbate the problem. Nobody yet knows the full repercussions of the review but an announcement to clarify its scope is expected over the next month or two. In the meantime, it is unlikely that new import approvals will be made. This means that the supply of imported maize and soya will become ever more restricted. 

It is hard to understand how such a situation has developed where emotion rather than facts and a mentality lacking in ambition and vision has blanketed the debate on agriculture in Europe. I realise that some lobby groups and individuals have benefited from their anti-GM and anti-pesticide stance but it clear to me that this is an indication of a wider malaise in Europe. I suppose in the end, the rest of the world will demonstrate what we are missing. In the meantime, Europe will increasingly have to rely on the rest of the world for its food supplies. Inevitably, this anti-science attitude will lead to higher food prices. This may not be so bad for European consumers but it could be devastating for those in the less developed parts of the world. But hey-ho, the debate on GM and pesticides in Europe has always been based on the “I’m alright, Jack” mentality.

european Corn Borer Damage

Picture by Cornell University 

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Will glyphosate use be restricted?

Posted on 04/03/2015 by Jim Orson

CouchI remember clearly where I was when I first heard of glyphosate. It was on a farm in NE Essex which was hosting a development trial measuring glyphosate’s ability to control common couch. The farmer clearly considered it miraculous and indeed it has been key in increasing the productivity of agriculture around the world. Its status has been further enhanced in the EU by the banning of paraquat which was the only alternative for some of its uses.

Glyphosate is currently going through the EU 10 yearly renewal of approval process. The submission has been made and the German registration authority, in consultation with other member state registration authorities, is working through it and I hear that there will be some form of public and expert consultation later this year, possibly in the late summer.

It is hardly worth saying that the renewal of this herbicide is critical to the future productivity of food production in the EU. It is also, perhaps, the most ‘politically charged’ renewal. This is because the ideologically motivated green lobby has mounted a huge campaign against the herbicide because of its association with Monsanto and GM. Their campaign has been done on the back of some very ‘shaky’ science (I would like to say something stronger than ‘shaky’ but that would perhaps be too emotive) and intense lobbying. Some of the papers quoted by the so-called green groups come from very widely recognised institutions but, in my opinion, the content of these papers discredits the standing of science, the authors, their ‘cause’ and their institutions.

However, some things have changed over the last ten years that I assume will have to be taken into account during the re-registration process. It is now clear that the risk of resistance to glyphosate is far higher than previously anticipated. Equally, the risk of it occurring in water is far higher than anticipated.

I never thought that glyphosate had much propensity to move to water and had assumed that the recorded levels in water courses were mainly due to applications to hard surfaces. However, recently published research in France (carried out by a very reputable organisation) suggests that glyphosate applied to a calcareous clay soil can move to water over a period of time. This is because of a chemical interaction with that particular soil. The French are now researching whether this can also occur on other soil types, particularly high pH soils. Additional evidence comes from the US Geological Survey which has measured glyphosate in water, the air and in rainfall, particularly in the high usage area of the Mississippi River Basin (http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2909#.VPF05XysXTA).

The UK Environment Agency estimates that the levels in water have to be around 2,000 times higher than the 0.1 ppb drinking water standard to have an impact on the health of the water environment. Such high levels have never been approached in monitoring in the UK but the drinking water standard has regularly been exceeded. Fortunately, glyphosate is easily removed from water by the activated carbon filters at the water works.

Most farmers are familiar with the development of resistance outside the EU of a range of weeds to glyphosate. The first recorded case of resistance, rye-grass (Lolium rigidum) in Australia, was not associated with GM crops but there is no doubt that growing such crops has accelerated resistance development, which has been further encouraged by these crops enabling the adoption of no-till agriculture. Decisions on resistance management are usually taken by the member states when they authorise products based on EU approved active ingredients and they see this issue as a priority area. I am sure that our regulators will take due regard of this risk and, if they consider it necessary, impose restrictions that they deem necessary but that have the minimum impact on the industry.

It is clear that resistance development and movement to water can be a reflection of the level of use of the herbicide. Hence, I am fearful that some restrictions in use may result from the EU approval and the subsequent product authorisation process in the UK. Let’s hope it is not too onerous and does not reduce the European farmers’ ability to produce food.

George CussansI must add a brief footnote. Prior to the introduction of glyphosate, couch control was done by repeated cultivation using guidelines based on the research done by George Cussans at the Weed Research Organization. After the introduction of glyphosate he developed new areas of research, particularly, the field activity of glyphosate, black-grass control (remember Kd?) and resistance and the competitiveness of weeds. George died recently and I am sure that many would like to join me in acknowledging his research, his beautifully written papers (many of which are still very much appropriate), his communication skills and his friendship.

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Who’d be a scientist?

Posted on 18/02/2015 by Jim Orson

Who'd be a scientist?In my previous blog I mentioned that refined sugar does not contain DNA and so sugar from GM sugar beet cannot be anything other than exactly the same as sugar from non-GM sugar beet.

Within a couple of days of that blog being uploaded onto the NIAB website the issue of the amount of sugar in soft drinks was in the headlines. In the ensuing discussion, there were accusations that scientists had been bought out by the soft drinks industry. “Obesity experts advising the government are being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by the junk food industry” railed the Daily Mail.

This prompted responses from the scientists named absolutely refuting the accusation. One response included that following statement. “As someone who cares passionately about engaging the public in a debate about science, my greatest sadness is that in the absence of evidence, implying that bias exists and that there has been wrongdoing by scientists, simply erodes trust and confidence in research and is a disservice to the public”.

There are no doubt increasing efforts to discredit the role of science in decision making. It is particularly unfortunate that national newspapers, without a shred of evidence, sometimes seem to encourage this notion. True, the Government actively encourages scientists to work with industry but newspapers are not acting in the national interest, as they claim, if they take the easy and populist approach of just repeating the claims of ideologically led lobby groups.

It is fashionable to back the groups or individuals who lobby against corporations and governments. The Daily Mail’s support for Dr Simon Wakefield, the disgraced doctor who created doubts over the safety of the MMR vaccine, is a case in point. Newspapers have to come to terms with the fact that such individuals or lobby groups have their own agendas which may not reflect the good of the general public. For instance, Forbes magazine said of Greenpeace recently that it is “a skilfully managed business, with full command of the tools of direct mail and image manipulation and tactics that would bring instant condemnation if practiced by a for-profit corporation”. In fact, Greenpeace is itself a corporation which shows a clear desire to increase its income. The most recent annual report states an income for Greenpeace Worldwide of 288 million Euros over half of which is spent on fund raising and administration. It has alienated many of its original founders, most notably co-founder Patrick Moore (not THAT one) who said “ultimately, a trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity in favour of political agendas forced me to leave Greenpeace in 1986”.

Part of their agenda is to ensure that farming is ‘ecologically based’ and they spend around 5 million Euros a year to campaign on this issue. Of course, like many campaign groups they do not define too tightly what they mean by ecologically based farming but they are very good at saying what they are against. This recently included getting rid of the Scientific Adviser to the European Commission who had the temerity to say that the scientific consensus supported GM technology, GM Golden Rice, that would help prevent blindness and other health issues in some parts of the world, and the neonic seed dressings. Unfortunately, Greenpeace is by no means the only group that appears to be led by an ideology rather than science based-facts.

In the USA, lobby groups have now developed another technique to attack scientists who do not share the same view. Much of the time of government funded GM researchers is now taken up with having to respond to endless requests for information under the freedom of information legislation.

So, it is not a good time to be a scientist in some subject areas. On the other hand, protest groups are keen to quote science when it suits them. A prime example is the climate change activists who constantly say that the overwhelming scientific view supports their objectives.

The only reaction that scientists can take to such attitudes is calmly to state the facts and not to be drawn into a charged political debate. That is not to say that scientists are perfect! In some cases they have to be challenged on issues such as choice of methods and treatments, interpretation of the data generated and the full disclosure of results, including those that may not support their hypotheses. Good scientists relish such a debate because it should lead to a better understanding and a wider consensus.

This reminds me, I must contact some scientists about their interpretation of the data published in a recent Defra project report. You may hear more of this later!

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Danger – DNA

Posted on 06/02/2015 by Jim Orson

DNAWhen I walk down to the centre of Cambridge I usually pass the Eagle pub. It was there, on 28th February 1953, that Francis Crick and James Watson strolled in and announced to their drinking pals that they had discovered how DNA carried genetic information. There were no big PR events in those days!

Ten years later this discovery resulted in me almost failing my biology A-level. Our biology master was absolutely engrossed by the developments in the understanding of the genetic code and we spent hours and hours on the subject, despite it not being on the syllabus.

So 62 years after that historic pub announcement how has the general public’s understanding of the genetic code and DNA advanced? Well it seems not very far. A recent survey carried out by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA”, about the same number as support mandatory labelling of GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering”. This has led one of the Oklahoma researchers to offer a script for a label warning:

“WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children”.

I have been trying to think of a foodstuff that does not contain DNA. The only example that comes to mind is sugar, which is just a chemical molecule. A few years ago sugar was analysed to see if any DNA got through the refinement process and none was found in the final product. This made the statements from those against GM sugar beet that such sugar would be bad for your health vacuous nonsense but of course too much sugar from any source is not to be encouraged.

The level of understanding intimated by the survey makes it easy for the scaremongers to cause concern over GM. They have tried and tried to say that there is harm from eating GM food but of course nobody has caught even a sneeze from eating registered GM crops. I say ‘registered’ GM crops because it must be possible by GM to make a plant poisonous but this would typically be an intentional process. No sane company would develop and sell a GM crop that is intentionally or unintentionally harmful and, in any case, it would not get through the registration process which tests the safety of the trait.

So it perhaps comes as no surprise that with such a pristine health and environmental record, the area of GM crops in the world continues to expand. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) states in its recently published annual report that the area of GM crops grown in the world increased by 6 million hectares in 2014 to a record 181.5 million hectares, grown by 18 million farmers in 28 countries. It marks the 19th consecutive year of increased global GM crop adoption since the first commercial plantings in 1996. Last year, several African countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda conducted field trials on GM food crops such as rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, bananas, cassava and sweet potato.

It is noticeable that newspapers, including the Telegraph, Times and Guardian have recently quoted the health record of GM crops and the Times strongly backed Ann Glover’s (whose role of Scientific Adviser to the European Commission was seemingly discontinued at the behest of the anti-GM movement) case for decisions being made on sound science rather than the lobbying power of interest groups.

Also of significance, Stephen Tindale the former Greenpeace UK executive director (and prior to that special adviser to Environment Minister Michael Meacher) suggests that it is time to move on from an ideological debate over GM crops and accept that the technology can deliver benefits needed to feed a growing population in a warming world. This includes making crops drought- and pest-resistant, increasing yields and improving nutrition, such as in Vitamin A enriched Golden Rice.

It is interesting that some anti-GM groups have introduced a new red-herring. They are now saying that GM is an old-fashioned technology and Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) is the way forward. This is again playing on the lack of public understanding on plant breeding methods. MAS has been around for as long as GM and some claim they have traced its methodology back to 1923. In traditional plant breeding it is a way of guiding selection but it will never be as directly targeted as or have the ability to introduce novel traits as GM.

It may be that the recent changes in EU legislation will mean that we will be able to grow GM crops in a few years time. Perhaps now is the time to consider how to integrate GM glyphosate tolerant crops into rotations without increasing the risk of glyphosate resistant weeds.

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Soil care

Posted on 28/01/2015 by Jim Orson

The time had flown until the three minutes of added time that seemed an eternity but the Mighty U’s (Cambridge United) held on for a famous draw with Manchester United. The two and a half mile trek back home through freezing rain seemed pleasurable after such a dramatic match. This year’s FA Cup run looks like trebling the gross income of Cambridge United. I hope they invest this windfall wisely. They have made a sensible start; the chairman has just announced that they are going to build new toilets.

Farmers are used to such variation in income and as I said in last week’s blog, some Canadian and US farmers are investing the reasonable profits from the last few years into equipment to improve productivity and also, hopefully, to improve soil conditions: not that their track record over recent years has been lacking.

Currently at least 40% of the 300,000-400,000 hectares of winter wheat in Ontario is undersown in the spring with red clover. This really bursts into growth after the late July/early August harvest and is then killed by glyphosate at the end of October. This provides around 75 kg/ha of N to the following grain maize crop in addition to returning additional plant material to the soil. The latter is particularly useful because the wheat straw is baled and used by the many local dairy and pig units.

It is interesting that this practice enables such a meaningful reduction in the optimum dose of bag nitrogen to the following crop. The New Farming Systems (NFS) experiments by NIAB TAG at Morley (funded by The Morley Agricultural Foundation and the J C Mann Trust) have shown small yield increases in the spring crop following legume cover crops but no diminution in the optimum dose of bag nitrogen. There could be many reasons for this difference but one might well be that the soil in Ontario goes into deep freeze between late November and mid-March.

By the way, I am not too sure that we could successfully undersow red clover into our wheat crops. In the NFS experiments, the level of a companion crop of white clover surviving in a wheat crop that receives 200 kg/ha of bag N is disappointedly low.

no-tillIn this part of Canada, much of the new equipment is being used to integrate further cover cropping and no-till or strip-tillage. Some strip-till and no-till equipment can be used in the spring to sow a crop through a remarkably large and still growing cover crop. The farmers prefer to kill the cover crop with glyphosate after the spring crop is sown. This, they argue provides a far more ‘weather proof’ approach than spraying-off the cover crop before sowing.

So the quest for further rounding the virtuous circle of integrating no-till with cover crops to improve soil health continues with almost religious fervour. However, the recent conference in Ontario that I attended was almost brought to a shuddering halt by the talk from one farmer. His father was one of the first farmers to adopt min-till and then no till in the 1980s. However, he noted that his yields in recent years have slipped to 9% below the average for the province. So he has started to plough one year in three and now his yields are 5% above the average for Ontario. Some of those in the audience were enraged and one even accused the speaker of destroying his father’s legacy. UK farmers can become rather heated about tillage and this session proved that North American farmers share the same passion for the subject.

I suppose it all comes down to whether there is a long term benefit, in terms of soil quality and productivity, from no-till and adding additional vegetable matter through cover cropping. It is obvious that many farmers think that there are benefits to the long-term adoption of no-till but I am not aware of any convincing evidence in terms of crop yields to support this notion. There is convincing evidence that not moving the soil will typically reduce erosion (although not in every case), increase the level of organic matter close to the surface and increase the number of ground beetles and earthworms but yields suggest that these advantages do not mean as much to the crop as perhaps we think they should. Neither do I argue with the huge potential cost savings from adopting no-till.

In some cases, there are real problems as a result of the continuous adoption of no-till. In such systems, there is a more rapid build of herbicide resistance. In addition, some remarkable problems have occurred in Australia where, in places, large infestations of mice, millipedes or earwigs have built up and have caused considerable crop losses. Also, in parts of Western Australia, continuous no-till has resulted in a waxy type deposit forming around surface soil aggregates, thus dramatically reducing percolation of crop limiting rainfall. Therefore, fervour has to be balanced by realism and a more rational debate.

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