NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle


Posted on 11/06/2012 by Jim Orson

Well, I am back refreshed from a holiday inFrance. The sugar beet and potatoes were not as advanced as would normally be expected, so it seems that they have also suffered from a cold spring.

Whilst I was away there was the mass demonstration against the GM trial at Rothamsted. It seems that ‘mass’ was the wrong description. The organisers said 400 turned up, the police said 200 and a farmer who went along to observe counted no more than 150. Presumably they could not use poor weather as an excuse for such a low turnout.

Do the low numbers suggest a tipping point in the so-called ‘GM debate’? It is hard to tell. Perhaps the self-appointed ‘guardians of our environment’ are not reflecting widespread public concern. Perhaps it also shows that you can cry wolf too often.

The claims that a single small and well regulated trial can despoil the environment have been used too many times. These same arguments were used for the GM crop field-scale evaluations, which were on a far larger area, and the GM potato trial at John Innes, and it’s clear that these have not left any negative legacy.

Last year approximately 160 million hectares of GM crops were grown around the world. As far as anyone knows they, and the GM crops grown over the previous 15 years, have had neither a negative environmental impact nor caused as much as a sneeze in humans. On the contrary, GM crops have led to environmental improvements in some parts of the world by facilitating better soil conservation methods and/or reducing insecticide use. In Canada, GM herbicide tolerance has resulted in canola being a ‘weed cleaning’ crop rather than a ‘dirty’ crop, enabling the widespread adoption of peas (a ‘dirty’ crop) into the rotation and may have resulted in an increase in biodiversity.Rothamsted action day

The general public are becoming aware of these facts and so it is getting progressively harder for those who oppose the technology to scare them. The extra ingredient in the Rothamsted trial was that the scientists did not sit quietly behind their barricades but actively joined the debate. They should be congratulated for doing so.

To achieve public support you have to earn trust and there was an interesting repercussion as a result of the call for mass action. Graham Jellis, speaking on behalf of the British Crop Production Council (BCPC) on Channel 4 News, said that GM crops now accounted 10% of the world crops. This statement obviously caused doubt in some minds, perhaps more so in those unsure of the technology.

Anyway this statement was checked by those who run a website that tries to verify statements made in the media. The site used all the usual tools for verifying this kind of data. Sources ofinformation were discussed, particularly the area of GM crops grown because inevitably it was primarily estimated by those selling GM crops. In addition, there was an interesting debate about what constitutes world cropping. Significantly, there was an acknowledgement that Graham was correct, and he responded by saying that his source ofinformation was the UK Food Standards Agency.

So there may now be a wider acceptance of the success of GM crops and also that the area being adopted is increasing significantly from year to year. This counters the activists’ argument that it is a failed and outdated technology.

I need to stress that I’m not suggesting that GM is ‘the be all and end all’ of agricultural progress, playing a significant role along with other plant breeding techniques. In previous blogs I have expressed caution about the adoption of GM crops without due attention to their possible impact on future cropping options. However, I cannot see how rejecting new forms of agricultural technology will enable us to return to the rural idyll, that some of the objectors seem to crave, without widespread food shortages.

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Bainton opens up a new day out

Posted on 11/06/2012 by Nick Watson

So Thursday 7th June saw the first of three National Agronomy Centre open days. The weather didn't look like it was going to be kind to us, and don't mention the lack of coffee.

With boards up and a field of wheat and oilseed rape the locations for the field tours, Patrick Stephenson, Northern Regional Agronomist, made introductions and welcomed all. With the rain falling senior pathologist Jane Thomas explained the merits of the Optibean programme and Ron Stobart, Head of Communications, discussed the research we are doing in agricultural rotations.

With the rain easing slightly there was the option of going to either field location with Bill Clark, Commercial Technical Director, covering fungicide programmes 'the possibility of a T6 spray' with a look at some crop treated with SDHI fungicides, plus his explanation of the flecking we've seen a lot of this year in wheat crops. Also in the wheat field was Richard Overthrow, Western Regional Agronomist, he was demonstrating the wheat varieties, with several new ones on the list and some highlights to consider for this Autumn.

Over in the Oilseed field, Selwyn Richardson ADAS soil management expert, had dug a suitably large hole to explain the virtues of good soil management, I was surprised to hear that Sugar Beet roots can get as far down as 6ft and OSR as much as 3ft, down deep enough, should it turn dry, to access enough moisture down in the profile to see the plant through the important pod fill period. Alan Dewar talked about insect pest resistance which is becoming more and more of a problem. Finally Simon Kightley, responsible for Oilseeds and Pulses, gave us his enlightening view on the pros and cons of the current OSR varieties along with his choice of the pick of the bunch and ones to look out for in the future.

Also joining us, somewhat drier in the marquee, were representatives from Easton College, HGCA, AFP, RASE, United Oilseeds and CFE.

With the rain abating at 12, the hog roast was a welcome sight and smell, it gave a chance to put down the brollies and chat with a few of the growers attending. Most thought the location was good, with the field display and talks a highlight. It's always good to go to these events, you never know what new bit of information you might pick up, whether on varieties, soil care or the new thinking on why the hell is the cause of that, or just an opportunity to catch up with the rest of the members.

Well one down and two more to go, Morley on the 21st June and Hampshire on the 28th. I'm sure the sun will shine at some point!

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Look before you leap!

Posted on 07/06/2012 by Jim Orson

I have great sympathy with those trying to introduce new crop technologies, which may help us in the challenge to better secure future food supplies.

Take the first halting steps to introduce GM into Europe. Inevitably, the easier to achieve GMs were introduced first; that’s the way with technical developments. GM herbicide tolerant crops offer good and reliable weed control, something for which herbicide manufacturers have been striving over the last few decades.

Not only is weed control in GM herbicide tolerant crops reliable but it offers the real possibility of adopting rational weed control strategies. The grower can check the emerged weed population before application and make an assessment on the risk posedOilseed rape in flower to current and future crops. An application may not be necessary or a lower dose could be used. In most cases, ‘conventional’ herbicide strategies don’t offer this option: weeds have to be controlled before or very soon after they emerge.

However, the potential weed control offered by this technology may be too high in some crops to be acceptable under the EU GM legislation, because it may result in an indirect reduction in the soil weed seedbank. This is deemed a threat to biodiversity in the future. Fancy - a conventional herbicide being banned because it was too effective!

I think that the whole industry is beginning to accept that we need to mitigate the level of weed control now being achieved in the field by encouraging biodiversity on specifically managed areas on the farm. So we could mitigate the impact of the higher levels of weed control possible with GM herbicide tolerant crops. But it is worth pointing out that sympathetically managed herbicide regimes in these GM crops can lead to better within crop biodiversity with no, or very little, threat to the current or future crops.

Part of the anti-GM rhetoric is that the technology is not that special and conventional breeding linked to better knowledge of genomics will result in the same thing. And that’s what has happened with the oilseed rape ‘Clearfield’ varieties tolerant to the imidazilinone herbicides being introduced into Europe.

But now there are campaigners attacking trials containing these varieties complaining that this is GM by the back door! It proves some of those who campaign against GM don’t want any new approaches to food production, but it is also clear that some pine for a return of a rural idyll of small-scale farmers using traditional techniques and cannot see past this point. We may be all right in our rural idyll but outside it more food will have to be produced, possibly with huge environmental implications.

The future is going to get even more complicated. Biotech is opening up other new plant breeding methods and genetic innovation. It is now possible to use GM as part of the process but the final product may not have a GM fingerprint. This is a challenge to regulators if it’s decided that there should be regulations to take into account what is now possible. And in the meantime further new breeding methods will be developed so ‘future proofing’ any new regulations will be a huge challenge.

All novel approaches to crop production need to be considered with care. The ‘imi’ tolerant oilseed rape is a case in point. It offers control of weeds closely related to oilseed rape, namely charlock and runch. It also controls conventional rape volunteers; a very valuable aid to maintaining crop quality. This could be particularly useful in protecting the quality of the high oleic, low linolenic varieties. Of course, this could be the one and only opportunity. The volunteers of ‘imi’ tolerant oilseed rape will be resistant to ALS-inhibitor herbicides.

However, its introduction has to be thought through. The mode of action of the imidazilinone herbicides is ALS inhibition - a very common mode of action with resistance in common poppy, common chickweed and scentless mayweed as well as black-grass. Using an ‘imi’ herbicide in oilseed rape means less reliance on this mode of action elsewhere in the rotation. This will be helped by volunteers on ‘imi’ tolerant oilseed rape being resistant to ALS-inhibitor herbicides.

However, there is one situation that has to be thought through with particular care. Debut, an ALS-inhibitor herbicide, controls oilseed rape volunteers in sugar beet. It enables these two crops to be grown in the same rotation and this may no longer be possible with ‘imi’ tolerant oilseed rape.


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Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy

Posted on 28/05/2012 by Jim Orson

Well the field drains have been running and water companies continue to find pesticides in raw potable water supplies. I, like many, get a weekly update (provided by the Voluntary Initiative) of pesticides in some raw potable water sources. I’ve got accustomed to seeing the usual suspects but I was very surprised to see glyphosate mentioned recently in one catchment with levels were above those specified in the EU Drinking Water Directive.

Glyphosate is a very emotive herbicide. Most practical farmers, local councils and, dare I say, nature reserve managers think it is an essential part of their businesses. However, there is a huge effort internationally to discredit it. This is fired by the anti-GM movement who see it as one of their prongs to try to undermine the technology; indeed, anti-GM groups have it in for glyphosate.

Running riverThere is a consultation exercise currently being carried out on what level of glyphosate (and a small list of other pesticides) in water bodies can be tolerated before it damages water ecosystems (i.e. the Environment Quality Standard or EQS).

This surprises me in two ways. Firstly, glyphosate, theoretically, should not really be moving through soil to water. Secondly, all the data I have seen on its threat to water ecosystems suggest that it is not that hazardous when compared to some other pesticides, which are having proposed EQS standards set.

Then I remembered that a lot of glyphosate is used to control weeds on hard surfaces by councils and others (including very amateur gardeners like me). This can be a very efficient route to watercourses. It is also still used, subject to very specific conditions, for weed control in water. I also have to admit that I don’t have all the data required for me to make a very amateur comprehensive assessment of its threat to water ecosystems.

Exceedances of the EQS would result in a waterbody failing to meet the requirement of the Water Framework Directive. However, I’m very content to see that the one proposed for glyphosate in the consultation is not frightening, and in my opinion, would occur only if there was a spillage fairly directly into a watercourse.

But, as with all pesticides, good practice needs to be adopted. If there should be an exceedance then, other than a spill on a farm, weed control on hard surfaces should realistically be the first port of call in any investigation.

The other significant additions to this UK list of priority substances are pendimethalin, methiocarb (e.g. Draza) and chlorothalonil and much more demanding standards are proposed for these – particularly with the case for methiocarb. So those who are outside areas from which drinking water is sourced cannot relax and should adopt the same stewardship guidelines as those promulgated by the Pelletwise campaign for metaldehyde.

As an aside, a few years ago I attended a vegetation conference in Pompeii. There are several reasons to remember the conference in addition to looking around the remains of the inundated gardens.

The local mayor opened the event and he had a very visibly armed bodyguard standing alongside him on the platform. But the most striking memory was a paper by the then vegetation manager of Glasgow City Council. He described how, due to pesticide legislation, he had had to move from using atrazine/simazine to diuron and finally to glyphosate to control weeds in the streets of Glasgow.Local amenity weed control

Paradoxically, he said that the number of complaints mushroomed after they adopted glyphosate. With atrazine/simazine and diuron, the single application was carried out in the dead of winter on bare pavements before there was any new growth. With glyphosate, the two or three spraying operations were carried out in the summer when there were more people about and the treated emerged vegetation naturally had symptoms. He added that he never sent a guy out alone to spray the streets of East Kilbride!

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The end game?

Posted on 16/05/2012 by Jim Orson

It's the time of year when the success or otherwise of black-grass control in winter cereals is judged. Reports from farmers suggest that it is a mixed bag and there have been some spectacular failures of control. 

This has been due to a combination of herbicide resistance and dry soil conditions when the herbicides were applied. These dry soil conditions not only reduced the control achieved by the pre- and early post-emergence herbicides but also the early autumn applications of products such as Atlantis. Tractor ploughing

The NIAB TAG Updates issued to our Network members expressed concern that this might happen and suggested that the application of Atlantis, or its alternatives, was delayed until the soil around the roots of the weed was moist. However, in many cases, the farmer’s desire to ‘get on’ proved too strong a temptation.

After the dry autumns of 2009 and 2011 it should be clear to all that there is a real issue about controlling black-grass in conditions that are hostile to good herbicide activity. Conditions for activity were not that important when the weed was more susceptible to herbicides but now they are critical. Just 'getting on’ and treating regardless of the conditions is not an option.

I suppose that the really nasty conditions for residual herbicides are those where there is sufficient moisture for crops and the weed to establish but the surface layer of the soil is too dry for good herbicide activity - exactly what occurred last autumn. During the most vulnerable weed stages to the pre- and early post-emergence herbicides, the soil surface layer was too dry.

The only real answer to this is to lower the background black-grass populations to a level where less is required of herbicides.

The implications of this are clear: increased levels of cultural control are required and everyone knows the options. Their adoption has to be discussed on a farm-by-farm basis.

What was surprising about last autumn, and previous dry autumns, is that there was still a benefit in terms of black-grass numbers in the crop from delayed drilling. This has not been closely researched but indicates yet again that black-grass seed does not have to emerge for it to be lost. 

Those who claim great benefits from ‘stale seedbeds’ should note that there are other significant mechanisms that cause seed loss. It is not just about getting the weed to emerge.

However, experience shows that delayed autumn drilling is a chancy option unless strategically adopted. In dry autumns, delaying the last couple of days’ drilling until the five day forecast is confidently predicting a good rain is an option for the worst affected fields. Hopefully, these fields can then be sprayed when the soil surface is moist. A few farmers tried this approach last autumn and it seemed to work.

A cultural measure not often featured as an option is to kill the black-grass in the standing crop or to ensile it before it becomes viable. This is most attractive when there are discrete patches of high infestations of the weed. These patches are often comprised of the most resistant weeds in the field.

So, there are both short and long-term considerations when assessing black-grass populations over the next week or so. The short-term issue is the implication of patches of black-grass seeding this summer. The long-term one is whether there is a need to reduce background black-grass populations to a level which is appropriate to the levels of control that can now be achieved by herbicides.

We are not at the end-game for herbicide control but we are at the end-game for the attitude that we can achieve high levels of black-grass control every year and that we can treat the weed at a time convenient to us. The weed has been slowly taking charge for the last three decades and everyone needs to recognise this.

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