NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Turning the tide

Posted on 17/11/2017 by Jim Orson

My wife and I recently attended the screening of the film “Food Evolution”, which was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists. It graphically details the objections to GM food and also the people who are promulgating the scares. One amazing scare story that I have not heard before is that GM food affects your immune system which protects you from infections such as HIV?!

Mark Twain’s famous quote “It is easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled” is the first image of the film and sets the scene. It is illuminating how the scare stories are debunked in the film and also to hear that some leading objectors to GM foods in the US have shops on their websites selling ‘healthy’ foods.

One negative story about GM, which Prince Charles frequently quotes, is that buying GM seed has increased farmer debt in India and resulted in suicides. Each suicide is a huge tragedy but the suicide rate amongst Indian farmers did not increase after the introduction of GM crops in India. Sadly, it has long been at current levels.

Some objectors used to quote that there is a very close correlation between the increase in glyphosate use on GM maize and soya in the US and the increase in the number of autism cases in the US. Please, always remember that correlation is not causation and in fact there is a similarly strong correlation between the organic food sales in the US and autism (full details). Despite this close correlation I have never heard anyone suggest that organic food causes autism!

                     Number of children 6-12 with autism

                              The real cause of increasing autism prevalence?

Going back to Mark Twain, the scare stories have convinced many that GM food production and consumption is damaging both to the environment and their health. Getting them to accept that they have been severely misled is a major challenge. As one journalist asks in the film “when was the last time you changed your mind on a major issue?”. This simple question encapsulates the enormity of the task of convincing consumers that GM is safe.

In the panel discussion after the film it was agreed that the way forward is to quote the examples of successful niche uses that have been introduced by non-commercially funded researchers, rather than corporations, into a society that has a background of unease over GM technology. One of the prime examples used in the film is GM rainbow papaya that saved production in Hawaii from a virus and another concerned bananas threatened by a wilt disease in Uganda. These two cases have gained acceptance by the legislators and consumers and could open the gates to other uses of the technology.

The film was screened at a meeting of the University of Cambridge’s Global Food Security Initiative. I estimated that there were around 150 people present and if there was anyone present who objected to GM technology, they kept very quiet. This I think is illuminating in itself. Over the last ten years or so academia has not only become more accepting of GM technology and other modern biotech breeding methods but also of ‘intensive farming’. Most now agree that organic farming would use up too much land in order to feed people and hence would be environmentally disastrous. I hope that the media will eventually see this issue more objectively. At the moment they appear to accept lamely that all the world’s ills are due to ‘intensive farming’.

However, having said that, a paper in this week’s Nature Communications suggests that organic production could feed the world in the future but would require 16 - 33% more land or that the current cropped area would be sufficient if food waste is reduced by 50%. Also land that can grow arable crops should not grow crops for animal feed. This is a repeat of a story that is at least twenty years old and it still sounds far too good to be true. Mind you, even if these suppositions are correct, just think of the land potentially spared from conventional crop production if demand is similarly reduced by cutting waste and by not growing arable crops for animal feed. This spared land could be specifically managed to meet environmental objectives. It would be a veritable seventh heaven for many conservation organisations.

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WHO and ebola, Mugabe and glyphosate

Posted on 03/11/2017 by Jim Orson

My first doubts about the World Health Organization (WHO) arose because of its response, or lack of it, to the ebola crisis in Africa. It was founded to react rapidly to this type of issue but it initially failed when this true emergency came along. It was charities such as Save the Children that first stepped into the breach. The failings of the WHO have been attributed, in part, to the fragmented nature of its structure.

The WHO did not seem to learn from the ebola issue. Its organisational structure has allowed the now discredited scientist Christopher Portier the space to play out his own financially rewarding personal vendetta against glyphosate and also enabled Robert Mugabe to be – temporarily! - appointed a goodwill ambassador. I am not sure which is the sillier decision. Obviously there are no checks and balances to prevent individuals and cliques from following their own agendas rather than that of the organisation.

It is now clear that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the WHO, describing glyphosate as a probable carcinogen is a scandal. I hope that when the WHO is re-organised, as it must be, it will review this decision and use independent minded scientists. In the meantime it is necessary to defend the herbicide.

There is more than sufficient good science to defend the safety of glyphosate in an independent forum. The impact of its withdrawal on arable agriculture and the wider environment would be immense. Whilst the list of its benefits is too long to detail in this blog, I should like to mention one issue in particular.

It is a widely held belief that no-till, enabled by glyphosate, increases carbon capture in the soil. This is not true. No-till and ploughing capture the same amount of carbon. With no-till there is a build up on the soil surface whilst with ploughing it is distributed throughout the plough layer. A recent AHDB report confirms this.

It may well be that concentrating the soil carbon close to the surface rather than it being more dispersed brings agronomic and environmental advantages. Of course, no-till or shallow till means moving less soil and so there can be massive savings in fuel usage and carbon emissions. As a rule of thumb, doubling the depth of moving all the soil in the primary cultivation increases the power requirement fourfold.

Soil health is now of tremendous interest to politicians as well as farmers and, in this context, reducing tillage is a way forward provided that the soil is suited to such an approach and rotations are adopted to help manage weeds. The potential cost savings are very significant. The use of cover crops can help facilitate no-till or min-till but they will need to be killed with glyphosate before the following crop.

With such major advantages from glyphosate use hopefully the regulatory authorities will not let slip their standards and attitudes to sound science.

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Slow pace of GMOs in Europe

Posted on 20/10/2017 by Jim Orson

There has been much talk and discussion this week on ‘The Great Storm’ in October 1987. I remember it vividly. I was giving a talk in Northamptonshire that evening and it poured with rain all the way there and all the way back. The farmers were down because they were just about to put on their single black-grass spray. Nearly everyone intended to use early post-emergence isoproturon but the rain had stopped play for at least a week or two. Hence, there was a long discussion on the possibility of applying it when the ground was frozen. I got home to Cambridge close to midnight and although it was windy it was nothing to worry about. We were then woken at around two in the morning when it seemed that the windows were about to blow in.

Black-grass control has changed radically since then but some things have moved more slowly. Paradoxically, one new technology has not moved at all in Europe. GM herbicide tolerant (GMHT) crops have been available for the best part of 20 years but have not been grown in the UK. We all know the reasons for this and there are strong views, both for and against.

This week sees the start of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. The main theme is trust and truth. The first event I attended was on the safety of GMs. The two panellists were a leading plant scientist and a social scientist who is studying attitudes to GM. In many ways, the discussion was a throwback to 10-20 years ago. The issues were those that have been commonly raised since GM crops were first introduced. I think that this demonstrates clearly that GMO development has stalled in Europe and the debate is unable to move forward. On the other hand, the very large audience listened attentively to the replies to their questions and there did not appear to be a strong current against the technology. Perhaps that alone is a step forward?

There were one or two intriguing views that were expressed by the panellists. The plant scientist, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks that it was wrong to introduce GMHT crops first. He did not provide the usual opinion that this was because such crops appeared to benefit only the farmer. His reason was that the genes introduced were from bacteria. This almost fed the perception that the food produced was unnatural. He added that the latest generation of GM traits tend to be those where genes have been introduced from wild relatives. For instance, the GM blight resistant potato being field tested at the John Innes Centre in Norwich has an introduced gene from a wild Solanum species. Such an introduction would be possible through conventional plant breeding but would take decades to achieve a blend of current agronomic performance and market acceptability along with the blight resistance. He said that if these traits had come first there might have been more public acceptance; something akin to the ‘nudge’ theory in behavioural science. A nudge is small, a nudge is simple, and this is why a nudge is so appealing.

The social scientist highlighted that there appears to be no middle ground in views on GMOs. You are either for them or against them. She said that this reflects arguments on food security. Either you think that sustainable production of sufficient food to feed a rapidly expanding world population will be achieved by the responsible use of high-tech methods or by more ecologically-based farming.

She also said that Rachel Carson, in her polemic book ‘Silent Spring’ which initiated the green movement, argued for GM amongst her long list of suggested alternatives to pesticides . It is true that Rachel Carson did suggest biotic control methods, including Bt, although many in the green blob now raise their concerns over its use. This is probably because it is the basis of GM Bt insect resistant corn, cotton and soya. However, Rachel Carson was a scientist and would probably refute many of the arguments put forward by today’s green blob. It is clear from many of their statements that they have never read Silent Spring although they commonly refer to it. What is required is a balanced view of the way forward based on good science and not the strident anti-technology views, particularly from those ‘green’ groups that desperately need subscriptions to support their organisations.

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Ipomoea and Colonel Gadaffi

Posted on 06/10/2017 by Jim Orson


We have just returned from a holiday in the very South of France, where the Pyrenees meet the sea. On one strenuous walk, a loop of around 20  km, we climbed for around 3 hours. Initially there were vineyards, but then trees and then just scrub. At the  highest point of the vineyards we saw a lot of ipomoea growing up wire fences. The ipomoea genus is part of the Convolvulaceae family and have coloured flowers rather than the white flower of our commonly occurring field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), pictured above. The ipomoea was in full flower and very beautiful.

It is amazing how simple observations can lead to associated memories. I have only been asked once on how to control ipomoea, in this particular case morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) which is pictured at the end of this paragraph. It was on the morning of 15th April 1986. You may be impressed that I could remember the date or you may think I keep meticulous records of the inquiries I receive: not a bit of it. It was a Breckland farmer who made the inquiry. He also told me, well before the news broke, that US Air Force fighter bombers and their re-fuelling aircraft had that morning taken off from nearby Lakenheath and Mildenhall to bomb Libya. I have just checked the date of the raid to inform you precisely when the inquiry was made.

Jim orson blog 205

I had become accustomed to inquiries from the Breck on the control of exotic weeds. Vegetable crops are widely grown on these sandy soils in East Anglia. In those days imported seed was regularly used. This seed used to include the occasional ‘stranger’. The most common introduction was barnyard grass (with the wonderful scientific name Echinochloa crus-galli) in carrot seed. The ipomoea inquiry was a little different as in the previous year it had mysteriously appeared growing up one of the farmer’s isolated tall wire fences and had survived the winter. Later, I found out that its seed contains psychedelic chemicals which may have been the reason for its sudden appearance along a significant length of fence line. I assume the glyphosate applied at the time of the appearance of the first flowers saw an end to it.

None of these occasional introductions resulted in the establishment of field infestations in the Brecklands. Thankfully, they were a novelty rather than a threat.

In fact, I cannot think of a recently introduced annual weed causing issues in arable crops in the UK. We thought that awned canary-grass, that became a field problem in some limited areas in the early 1980s, was a new introduction but in fact it was recorded in field crops a century earlier. More recently, more infestations of rat’s tail fescue (Vulpia myuros) have occurred in no-tilled crops but it appears that it too has been around in our crops for a long time. NIAB TAG is currently doing some research on the control of this weed.

However, over the centuries there have been significant introductions of plants that have become major arable weeds in this country. The most significant being black-grass, wild oats, rye-grass and common poppy. Botanic databases have three categories of plant introductions; native, archaeophytes and neophytes. For this blog I have used the database of the Biological Records Centre. 

Native species were around when cultivations and crop production were first practised in Britain. These include chickweed, knotgrass, redshank, annual meadow-grass, rough meadow-grass, Yorkshire fog and meadow brome. Anyone familiar with the novel will be happy to note that the scarlet pimpernel is also a native species! It is interesting that the native annual broad-leaved weed species tend to be those that commonly occur in current spring-sown crops.

Archaeophytes are those species introduced in “ancient” times when some limited international trade first started. These include black-grass (a native of Eurasia), rat’s tail fescue, spring wild oat, black-bindweed, common poppy, scentless mayweed, common fumitory, ivy-leaved speedwell and barren (sterile) brome.

Neophytes are those considered to have arrived in Britain with the opening up of inter-continental trade. The threshold seems to be since 1492 when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. These species include awned canary-grass, winter wild oat, common field-speedwell and Italian rye-grass.

The problems with introduced weeds are not restricted to arable agriculture. The perennial neophytes, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, Himalayan balsam and rhododendron (ponticum) can cause real problems, so much so that it is illegal to plant them in the wild or to cause them to grow in the wild.

Perhaps the country whose land is most affected by non-native weed species is New Zealand. They currently face the challenge of the very recent introduction of velvet leaf, a really nasty annual arable broad-leaved weed. Whenever I spoke on weed control in NZ I was jibed about Britain sending them all their weeds. I had to explain that this was not true because it was their ancestors who brought the weeds with them. Britain is innocent of all charges!?

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The precautionary principle

Posted on 22/09/2017 by Jim Orson

The adoption in the current EU Pesticide Regulation EC 1107/2009 of what is claimed to be the precautionary principle could be a reason for the withdrawal from the market of pesticides that might otherwise be approved. What is the precautionary principle and what is its role in EC 1107/2009?

There is continuing confusion over the precautionary principle because many of the definitions I have read disagree as to whether or not it includes risk assessment. Some suggest that the precautionary principle is purely risk prevention (avoiding the possibility of harm) and does not include risk assessment (quantifying the risk of harm). Other definitions include both risk prevention and risk assessment. Hence the general understanding of the term ‘the precautionary principle’ is a real mess and open to exploitation by those who are opposed to a particular activity.

Rather bizarrely the European Commission has not got a legal definition of the precautionary principle despite its reliance on it in its pesticide legislation. The European Commission says in a paper on the subject “it would be wrong to conclude that the absence of a definition has to lead to legal uncertainty. The Community authorities' practical experience with the precautionary principle and its judicial review make it possible to get an ever-better handle on the precautionary principle”. This statement seems to assume that a legal definition is not yet possible.

In the USA there is a legal definition “when an activity causes some threat or harm to the public or the environment, general precautionary measures should be taken. When a scientific investigation proves that there is a possible risk in doing some activity, then this principle should be applied”. I interpret this to mean that, in this case, risk assessment is part of the precautionary principle. Risk assessment of pesticides involves quantifying the known risks in order to prevent harm to humans and the environment. However, it is not always possible to quantify all the risks and so, in the meantime, it can be argued that there may be a role for risk prevention.

Prior to the EC 1107/2009 the registration of pesticides was based on risk assessment. Safety factors for the impact on human health were (and still are) at least 100 fold, which I would argue is a very precautionary approach to risk assessment. However, EC 1107/2009 introduced the risk prevention approach of hazard cut-offs. Those active substances that are deemed to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, a reproductive toxicant ("CMR"), a persistent organic pollutant ("POP"), a persistent bio-accumulative toxic substance ("PBT") or a very persistent and very bio-accumulative substance ("vPvB") will not be approved unless there is negligible exposure in which case they may be approved under restricted conditions. Reassuringly, this sounds as if some form of risk assessment can be carried out rather than have an outright ban based on risk prevention.

These hazards were taken into account in the risk assessments under previous registration regime and surveys of UK sprayer operators, i.e. those most exposed to pesticides, suggest that this approach was robust. Hence, in this case, hazard cut-offs, deemed to be necessary under the precautionary principle, seem to be both unnecessary and also do not meet the understanding that such an approach is necessary only when a reliable risk assessment cannot be carried out.

Then there is the issue of endocrine disruptors i.e. those chemicals that can affect the hormone systems of humans and organisms in the wider environment. As many will know, the concern is that including endocrine disruption in the EU pesticide legislation could potentially remove a raft of key pesticides, including some or all of the triazole fungicides.

It is claimed that endocrine disruption could cause significant human health and environmental impacts. Strictly speaking, the current EU legislation for plant protection products does not include endocrine disruption in the hazard cut-offs. However, and similar to the listed hazard cut-off, it says that active substances which are endocrine disruptors will not be approved, unless there is negligible exposure. In this case they may be approved under restricted conditions. This again sounds as if some form of risk assessment can be carried out in certain circumstances. Unfortunately the mode of action of some insecticides is the disruption of the target insect’s endocrine system. Fortunately, it is acknowledged that some insecticides which have endocrine activity that affects target arthropods (e.g. insects) do not affect vertebrates. These insecticides will be subjected to a specific risk assessment and approved only if there are no unacceptable effects on non-target organisms. Last week the EU ministers adopted the European Commission’s draft criteria for endocrine disruptors in plant protection products. These will replace the interim criteria that have been used over the last two or three years.

It seems to me that the hazard cut-offs in the current EU Pesticide Regulations, which do not include endocrine disruption, are not necessary because the risks can be quantified. Hence, a risk assessment approach rather than risk prevention is appropriate. I am very much not alone in this belief. A review of EC 1107/2009 is being carried out and could result in changes over time. However, Brexit means that pesticide legislation specific to the UK may or may not be just around the corner. The first day of the BCPC Brighton Congress on pesticide regulation is on 31st October. The introductory speaker is George Eustice, Minister of State Defra offering the Government’s latest thinking on the outlook for the industry. Details of the whole conference can be found on Those wishing to attend just the first morning (and lunch) at a discounted rate should email or ring Julian Westaway on 07710 556382.

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