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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