NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Breaking the yield barrier

Posted on 09/04/2015 by Jim Orson

Soon the agricultural magazines will be featuring farmers who are striving for higher wheat yields and even trying to break the UK or world record. This leads to a healthy debate and it is interesting to read the various approaches that they are adopting. For some it is better plant nutrition and for others it is improved soil management etc. However, I remain sceptical that these welcome initiatives will lead to a significant break in the plateau of wheat yields that we have been on for the last twenty years or so.

By the mid-1990s we had nearly all the technology that we have today. Admittedly, since that time, we have seen the introduction of the strobilurin and SDHI fungicides and the steady increase in yield potential of new varieties. However, these have not produced the increase in average yields that might have been expected. There has been much debate about why this has not occurred.

There is much talk about trying to grab back the world yield record from New Zealand. I do not think that is possible because NZ has more sunlight (solar radiation), despite similar temperatures, during their growing season (see diagram). However, their average yields are similar to ours because natural rainfall typically limits their yields more than in the UK. Southland at the bottom of the South Island in NZ has more rainfall than the other arable areas and that is where the world record yield was grown. Further north, in the Canterbury Plain, even higher yields have been achieved with irrigation towards the end of their season.  

The rapid increase in UK wheat yields in the last quarter of the 20th century was due to the exploitation of current technologies by the industry. In particular, improved pesticides increased field yields but they are now subject to growing levels of resistance and legislation. All in all, this provides an unstable background to the attempts to increase yields further.

It is clear to me that we need a new technology or at least a significant shift in current technologies in order to break out of the yield plateau. I have been looking around and my current favourite is close to home.

Today’s wheat varieties all stem back to a freakish cross that occurred around 10,000 years ago between emmer wheat (a relative of durum wheat) and a wild goat grass. This produced the hexaploid wheat that we know so well.  It has a huge genome when compared to other crops and also when compared to many animals. In fact the wheat genome is five times larger than that of a human being. This ensured that breeders had plenty to work on and increasing yield potential is still possible, even after many years of scientifically based crossing and selection.

It is critically important to remember that the genetic base for all wheat breeding goes back to that one freak cross. It is both logical and perhaps essential to repeat that freak cross with a range of parents in order to bring more genetic diversity into wheat. This is what is being researched at NIAB and the early evidence is that such an approach could lead to a very significant breakthrough in yield potential.

This was part of a display by NIAB at the Cambridge Science Festival (see script of the display board). Let us hope that this promise will be delivered into practice but it will not happen overnight. The display also included how light drives plant cells and also the identification of genetic markers for the genes that influence the flowering date of wheat. NIAB has a good record on communicating science to the public at the annual Cambridge Science Festival and the researchers who volunteer for the festival hope that they will inspire the next generation of plant breeders. 

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The carbon footprint of your diet

Posted on 30/03/2015 by Jim Orson

It is Cambridge Science Festival time again and so far I have been to five events, ranging from lectures to panel discussions to hands-on demonstrations. What has struck me is the enthusiasm and modesty of the very high calibre presenters and the open-mindedness of the audiences. 

For instance, in one panel discussion on sustainability, a contributor from a campaigning organisation criticised big business but some of the younger members of the audience argued that it was only through business that society will improve its record. It was done in the context of a genuine debate about the issues rather than the shouting matches that I regularly experience when such issues are ‘debated’.

I had a similar experience in a workshop on choosing food that is good for the planet through reducing the carbon footprint of personal diets. It was run by the charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint ( Within a few minutes a member of the audience said that to achieve this aim we should all eat organic food. I commented (with some trepidation) that the overwhelming evidence suggests that conventional food has a lower carbon footprint and then almost ducked to avoid a boisterous rebuttal. However, the audience remained calm and one of the two co-presenters said that her understanding was the same as mine. She added that there are issues regarding the carbon footprint of food consumption that perhaps conflict with some ideological agendas. As another example, she said that plastic shopping bags have a lower carbon footprint than paper shopping bags. This exchange suggested that it was going to be an ideologically free debate.  It turned out to be great.

The workshop tackled the issue of getting reliable data on which to base decisions. It is extremely difficult to estimate Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and everyone present accepted that it is almost impossible to achieve accurate data. This is partly due to having to decide what is and what is not included in any calculation.

We were told that in the UK, the average annual GHG emissions per person is around 12 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (this take into account other greenhouse gas emissions, such as nitrous oxide). I could not find exactly the same figure in the literature, which generally says around 10 tonnes. The higher figure quoted at the workshop may also take into account the GHG associated with the production of the goods imported into the UK, including imported food.

We were also told that of this 12 tonnes, 2.9 tonnes were due to the production, processing, distribution and packaging of the food we eat. When this figure was broken down, 49% was due to production, 24% processing, 19% transport and 8% packaging. It is obvious that for each food purchased these proportions will vary hugely. In the debate it was highlighted that buying from a nearby supermarket may be more carbon efficient than driving to a farmers’ market and so it is difficult to establish absolute rules about where to shop.

It is also difficult to develop absolute rules on imported food because its long distance transport by boat may have a surprisingly low carbon footprint.

However, there was general agreement that buying in-season vegetables should typically result in a lower carbon footprint and that generally meat carries a high carbon cost. Sometimes meat can have a more moderate carbon footprint; for instance if it is from animals grazed on uplands where little additional feed inputs are used.

The really bad news is that cheese almost always has a high carbon footprint and so I will have to view my beloved Stilton in a new light.Stilton

In most of the discussion, I felt that I was a paragon of virtue despite my love of cheese. I grow a very high proportion of our vegetables in my second-hand unheated glasshouse and on my allotment (which I access on my wife’s bicycle). In addition, I now grow cover crops on the allotment which I hope will largely obviate the need to dig it. Can it get any better?

Well, perhaps not because then we touched on the subject of food waste. Again there is the issue of defining food waste as well as measuring it. It seems that some estimates include such items as potato peelings. In this case, the huge waste removing carrot fly damage to the parsnips I grow must, at least, slightly tarnish my halo. Perhaps I could reduce our carbon footprint further by using insecticides to control this pest.

More on the Cambridge Science Festival next time.


Picture: Stilton - High carbon footprint but delicious.


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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 (

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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