NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

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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Environmental pressures in the US

Posted on 28/01/2015 by Patrick Stephenson

There is no quick route to Reno! Add this to a two hour delay, lost luggage, a re-route and one is not the happiest camper!Patrick Stephenson speaking at the NAICC 2015 Conference

This journey is to the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants annual conference. The organisation includes independent agronomists and researchers that cover all of the states across the USA. I find it fascinating to gather information on product performance, environmental and political issues all in one conference, and although the USA is a separate continent, so many of the issues are the same and in fact are global problems.

Cows appear to be haunting me and again they have struck home. Wisconsin used to be a state with a balance of cropping, cows and pigs. But times have changed; dairy units now average 3,500 cows, many expanding to 8,000, with the largest over 12,000.

These large units are now the targets for the environmental lobbyists. Every dairy unit has to have a Nutrient Management Plan which is annually reviewed and then checked by state and company auditors, very similar to our Crop Assurance. Many of these can end up gathering dust on a shelf and are often only loosely relevant. Unfortunately, this has proved rich pickings for environmental activists, as what is stated in the plan is very seldom recorded or applied. In addition to this, the water requirement for dairy farming is far greater than arable and this puts pressure on all water supplies, domestic and agricultural. What was a united agricultural front in producing food is now fractured as access to water is a serious issue along with the potential threat of pollution.

These problems are not confined to Wisconsin. In Ohio there is a manure/water contamination problem, where the city of De Moines is suing three counties over such an incident. Any legal precedent here will certainly send shock waves around the US. I was reliably informed that this will not be the only case and this has jump-started legislation to try and defend counties by insisting on greater manure controls. In response to this, a magazine has been launched called ‘Manure Manager’ to cater for this new problem.

In line with the rest of the world, sustainable intensification is the key phrase. There are several key pieces of legislation coming through the Senate that will have far reaching agricultural impacts. Two of these pieces are to do with water and water standards and another on pollinators and neo-nicotinoids. This has generated so much work for the researchers that it occupied a whole day of debates.

In Australia, which has extensive use of neo-nicotinoids, there are no colony collapse cases. However, there are also no cases of varroa mite!Patrick taking part in a 'goldfish bowl' seminar discussion

Another US bill, which is due out imminently, is likely to see the Monarch butterfly included on the list of endangered species in the USA, which will radically impact crop production. Growers will have to take into account this species when making spray decisions. So what’s the problem? Pests are one of the most significant yield robbing problems in US agriculture. Being unable to spray due to the presence of a Monarch butterfly could see yields decimated by other insect pests. The political process in America is now under significant environmental pressure, with the Environmental Protection Agency being at the forefront.

Bio-pesticides are also gaining ground and are very difficult to assess in terms of benefits. Stimulating the plant’s self defence mechanism is a tremendous goal, but assessing if this is actually happening is very hard to confirm. I think, without a doubt, we will see these increasing in use, but I remain sceptical as to their contribution.

The wonderful part of attending these meetings is the feeling of family that agriculture brings, as we all tackle the same issues wherever we live in the world.

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The nearest defibrillator is ...

Posted on 20/01/2015 by Jim Orson

It was the typical start for a conference session. The chair announced the locations of the nearest emergency exits and the washrooms (a little clue as to the location of the conference). Then, to my astonishment, the location of the nearest defibrillator was described. The conference had 10 concurrent sessions held in three separate buildings, each a few hundred metres apart. The temperature outside was -15 Celsius and there was a biting wind and so going from one building to another between talks was more than bracing. It turns out that there was a defibrillator in each building which led to an overheard remark from a farmer to his father, something along the lines of, “that is awesome news because I would not bother to go to another building just for you”. I am sure that it was meant in jest.

The conference was held in an area of Canada surrounded by the great lakes. This meant that the winters are relatively mild, compared to the prairies. For instance, it was -37 Celsius in Winnipeg and Saskatoon at the time. The ‘milder’ winters mean that they can grow winter wheat and the basic rotation is winter wheat, grain maize and soya beans. However, the income from soya is so attractive that in that area alone there will be around 400,000 hectares of soya following soya this year. Agronomists are very concerned about the control of sclerotinia in the second soya.

There were 1400 delegates attending each day of the two day conference and there were an additional 100 who would like to have attended but applied too late. The vast majority were farmers who turned up in very large or extremely large pickups (utes). The benefit of these vehicles was demonstrated by the ability to get away from the conference in heavy snow conditions.

There were only two plenary talks to the whole audience. One was from a farm economist from the University of Virginia and the next day there was one by a tornado chaser. The economist gave a light hearted talk but towards the end provided the message that it was going to be tough in the commodity markets for the next few years. He said that North American farmers had got complacent about cost control and now was the time to prepare.

It is true that there seems to be a lot of new machinery on farms but the farmers who spoke at the conference (many of the talks were delivered by farmers) seem to be investing in new approaches that will hopefully not only be more labour productive but also improve soil health. I do not take this as complacency but using profits to invest in the future. The next blog will cover some of the initiatives that North American farmers are taking to improve soil health.

The conference was held in Ontario and the provincial parliament is introducing legislation to target a reduction in the use of neonic seed dressings by 80%. The legislators seemed proud of the fact that they are first in North America to impose restrictions on the use of this chemistry. However, it was pointed out in a local paper that the representatives in the majority party in the provincial parliament all represented urban constituencies.

The arguments for and against neonic seed dressings were sadly familiar and the proposed processes that individual farmers will have to go through to prove that they must have access to these seed dressings in the future appear impractical and naïve. According to agronomists, around 10% of the current area of use is where reliable and significant gains each year would be expected. The rest of the current use has to be classified as risk management with gains being less predictable but overall these seed dressings provide significant benefits for food production.

Farmers and agronomists do not argue that as a result of the air exhaust from pneumatic seed drills (primarily maize planters) the possible localised high doses in non-cropped areas adjoining to where neonics seed dressings are used can cause damage to non-target organisms, such as bees. They are vehement that the responsible use of these seed dressings is safe to bees. Last year the pneumatic seed drills began to be fitted with deflectors to ensure that the waste air was not exhausted into adjoining non-cropped areas. In addition, a lubricant had to be added to pneumatic seed drills in order that there was less chemical in the air exhaust. It is claimed that these measures resulted in overall bee losses in the environment being reduced down to a typical level.

This is to be applauded but I do wonder why it was not done before and at a time when perhaps such draconian measures by the Province could have been avoided. The issue of dust from the seed dressings in the exhaust air of the pneumatic seed drills has been recognised in Europe for some time.

I suspect it was all to do with the politics of the confrontation between the industry and the green movement. In such a febrile debate, admitting bee deaths as a result of high doses in the exhaust air from the drills would have been seen as a negative argument for the retention of the seed dressings. In a perfect world where rational debate is based on good science this may not have occurred. It is a lesson to all those who say that such matters need not necessarily be based on good science but demonstrably, a debate without verified facts can lead to a situation where everyone loses.

A final word on health and safety. My wife regularly visited a lady who has just died at the age of 98. She was once ‘in service’ to an eminent Cambridge family. The family summered in a house in northern England that is now a National Trust property. The servants’ quarters were on the top floor which had poor access to the rest of the house. So the first thing they did on arrival at the house was to do a fire drill which involved this lady, as both the smallest and youngest housemaid, being placed in a sling and lowered from an attic window by block and tackle. She said it was terrifying! If it were me, I would require a defibrillator.


Image: Wheat harvest in South West Ontario

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A challenging future

Posted on 02/01/2015 by Jim Orson

The start of the year is a time both for reflection and looking forward. It is rather salutary that at the end of 2014 the farming press was full of articles about how to survive the current downturn in prices. In general, the advice is largely the generic views expressed in previous downturns but of course there are more thought provoking views expressed on the dairy and sugar beet industries.

Barley & OSR fieldsThe piece of advice for combinable crops that I always view with some scepticism is that during a downturn in prices, farmers should take out of production those parts of the farm which do not have the prospect of turning a profit. I am not a business consultant but I am not sure that I fully agree. It all depends what is meant by a profit. Typically, even in the poorest yielding areas, the returns exceed the input costs i.e. there is a positive gross margin. It all gets a bit more complicated when the so-called fixed costs are also taken into consideration. I can see that where the income does not meet all costs that money is lost but I do wonder if fixed cost reductions, in line with reductions in cropped area, are easily achievable over the short term.

There are longer term issues that hang over the industry. In the 1990s MAFF and subsequently Defra had a penchant for funding studies on the impact of climate change on our agricultural industry. I suppose that they had a duty of care to the electorate so to do. On the other hand, nobody was quite sure of the likely extent and form of climate change and many, including me, thought the most sensible approach was simply to go to Toulouse (for instance) and observe the then current cropping and crop management practices. I must admit, again probably mistakenly, that I was relaxed about combinable crops because changing from say wheat to maize or oilseed rape to sunflowers required relatively small changes in farm infrastructure and machinery complement. In addition, the changes would happen fairly slowly, giving arable farmers time to adapt.

In the longer term, markets also alter due to changes in consumption patterns and international competitiveness. Last month at the AAB/BCPC conference on Crop Production in Southern Britain there was a fascinating paper by Simon Ward of Increment. His thesis was that the price of feed wheat was intrinsically linked to the maize price because they were both viewed simply as alternative energy sources for livestock. More controversially, he argued that oilseed rape and soya prices were linked, not necessarily because of their oil content but because of the value of their meal for livestock.

He then went on to argue that North European wheat yields are increasing at a slower rate than worldwide maize yields (even when the rapid rise in USA yields is excluded). On the other hand, North European oilseed rape yields are increasing at a higher rate than worldwide soya yields. The logical conclusion to this is that our feed wheat production will gradually become less competitive to maize and our oilseed rape production will become more competitive to soya. Logically this means that over the longer term we should be looking at growing less wheat and more oilseed rape. Naturally, Simon mentioned that there are a few reasons why such a change in cropping might not occur.

One of the caveats that he mentioned, and also one that undermines my 1990s relaxed view on the likely impact of climate change on combinable crop production in the UK, is that we now have less technical flexibility to sustain changes in the areas devoted to particular crops on the farm. This is due to those twin threats of pesticide resistance and pesticide regulation. In particular, the Water Framework Directive threatens the potential area of oilseed rape that can be grown because the resistance in black-grass to the ‘fops’ and ‘dims’ has resulted in our current reliance on carbetamide (e.g. Crawler) and propyzamide (e.g. Kerb). These, along with metaldehyde, are again appearing in raw water this winter at levels above that specified in the Drinking Water Directive. The current two year ban on neonicitinoid seed dressings has already significantly decreased the possibility of the effective control of flea beetle in the oilseed rape crop. Such a reduction in the ability to adapt farm systems to future markets and weather patterns is not a good place for the industry to find itself in when planning for the future.

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