NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

GM or non-GM; it’s the trait silly!

Posted on 21/09/2016 by Jim Orson

It is a fair time since I vented my spleen over the absurdity behind the public’s misguided views on the environmental impacts of GM crops. It is not the public’s fault; they have been led along the garden path by the green blob.

A basis of the registration process for GM crops is that they have no additional negative impacts on the environment than conventionally bred crops that have the same trait. Hence, it is hardly surprising that a recently published report from the Belgian plant science institute VIB concludes that:

Crop cultivation is by definition unnatural, and produces a negative impact on the environment. Plant breeding makes it possible to develop plants that reduce this impact. The impact, whether positive or negative, depends on the crop trait and the cultivation method, but not on the breeding technology used.

It is comforting that the registration systems for GM are working and that there have been environmental benefits. Over the last 18 years GM crops have worldwide saved 6.3 billion litres of fuel and 21.3 million kg on insecticide active substances. The report also highlights that when fields with insect-resistant GM crops are compared with conventional fields where insecticides are used, many more beneficial insects can be found in the fields with insect-resistant GM crops. Even opponents of GM agree that insect resistance can lead to more insect diversity in crops but I assume that they still object to using GM to achieve it. Surely by now they must suspect that they may be wrong in their unsubstantiated objections to this technology. However, they and (in some cases) their bank balances have nailed their colours to the mast and would find it impossible to backtrack.

The report does include a warning about the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops. The continual use of a single mode of action to control weeds, particularly where minimum- or zero-tillage is adopted, is the strategy with the highest risk of developing herbicide resistance in weeds. I do worry that the easy route provided by GM herbicide tolerance could mean that European farmers might adopt these practices, despite the precedent set by US farmers that has resulted in glyphosate resistant weeds. Hence, the report emphasises that:

‘To prevent resistance in weeds, insects, and fungi, there must be integrated pest management, which involves using several means or techniques simultaneously against a particular pest.’

The report also contains some intriguing data on the role of plant breeding in feeding the world now and in the future. A group of economists has estimated the impact of removing the gains in cereal productivity attributed to the widespread adoption of improved varieties. They conclude that in 2004, between 18 and 27 million additional hectares of agricultural land would have been in use compared to 1965. Of this figure, an estimated 12 to 18 million hectares of land was spared in developing countries and 2 million hectares of deforestation prevented. There is no doubt that, as a result of widespread adoption of improved crop germplasm, increases in cereal yields have saved natural ecosystems from being converted to agriculture. It is a pity that the green blob does not yet ‘get’ the wider environmental benefits associated with agricultural technologies.

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Over-precautionary principle?

Posted on 06/09/2016 by Jim Orson

Previous blogs have defined the difference between hazard and risk. Electricity is hazardous but the way we manage it means that it has a very low risk of doing harm. With pesticides, the level of risk is all about the dose likely to be received by operators, bystanders, customers and the wider environment. The way we manage pesticides can reduce the risk to acceptable levels for many pesticides hitherto classified as hazardous.

However, uniquely and for the first time, hazard cut-offs have been adopted in the current EU pesticide regulations, perhaps due to the over-zealous application of the precautionary principle. This means that however low the risk of using a particular pesticide may be, its registration will be refused or revoked if it has in any way been classified as a hazardous substance.

There are, of course, other hazards to human health involved in crop production. The most significant are the hazardous pathogens that occur in animal manures. The most prominent is E. coli, but salmonella and listeria can also be present. No one would dream of banning animal manures from crop production, despite these hazards.

The greatest risk of these hazardous organisms causing harm must be when manure is used just before or during the production of short-season crops which are consumed raw. There are guidelines for composting the manure before use, but things can go wrong. The best known example of things going wrong is the deaths caused by E. coli contamination of organic bean sprouts in Germany a few years ago. Over 40 people died and more had their long-term health ruined. In this and other cases of E. coli contamination, the risk management procedures either failed catastrophically or were not followed.

Possibly as a result of this particularly disastrous failure to provide safe food, the regulators appear to have increased their monitoring of hazardous pathogens in food. Last year the New York Times reported on the dramatic increase in product recalls of organic vegetables in the US, mainly due to contamination from animal manure derived salmonella and listeria. These pathogens can, at the very least, cause severe discomfort for the consumer. The data suggest, at least in some cases in the US, that the risk management of animal manures still needs tightening up. It is interesting that these pathogens did not appear to be an issue in conventionally produced food, whose main problem was undeclared allergenic constituents.

Over the last few decades there has not been a human death in the UK directly attributable to pesticides and in addition, I have not been aware of any proven chronic effects except, perhaps, from pesticides that were withdrawn a long time ago. Interestingly, a recently published study by Oxford University on the diets of more than 600,000 women over a decade, carried out before hazard cut-offs were introduced, suggests that eating organic food does not reduce the incidence of the wide range of cancers monitored. This suggests that rigidly applied risk management and not hazard cut-offs should also be appropriate to pesticides as well as animal manures.

Perhaps Brexit will provide an opportunity for the UK to make sure that the risk of harm from pesticides is assessed in the same manner as for other inputs used to produce food.

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Disappointing rape yields; causes?

Posted on 19/08/2016 by Jim Orson

Ladies of a certain age could not stop talking about scything following the most recent series of Poldark. I took this as great news, assuming that they were interested in the traditions of agriculture. In order to reinforce their new found enthusiasm, I offered to show them the proper technique for scything. This was because the actor in Poldark (Aidan Turner) appeared to be lunging at the grass rather than cutting it, something that was recently highlighted in the Sunday Times. My offer was met with a total lack of interest and mutterings about scything topless. A further offer to scythe bare-chested was met with near revulsion. It then clicked, it was not the scything but the bare-chested Aidan Turner: an example of jumping to a false conclusion by not taking into account the whole picture.

It is currently estimated that average winter oilseed rape yields in south Yorkshire and further south are down by around 10% this year. It may be that, like winter barley, the average yields will increase when the results of the harvest further north are taken into account. The question is what has caused this disappointing yield. Obviously the ravages of Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle reduced yields in some areas but yields also seem disappointing in crops unaffected by this pest.

There was talk a few years ago that oilseed rape yields were very dependent on good rainfall in June. This was based on a graph that appeared in the introduction to HGCA (now AHDB) project report 402. This graphed the field yields at Boxworth near Cambridge and June rainfall.

The project quite rightly argued that oilseed rape yields are very dependent on conditions during grain fill because, unlike wheat, final rape yields depend little on reserves in the plant. Moisture availability is, of course a major factor. However, it has to be pointed out that in wet weather there are lower levels of solar radiation, thereby reducing photosynthetic activity and also that correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

This year, despite good supplies of rain in June in most of England, yields are below average and so is the graph above the researcher’s Poldark moment? Maybe other factors were at play to cause annual variations in field yields and the fitting of one line through field yields on one farm was not indicating the right conclusion. This appears to be reinforced by the terrible yields in 2012 when there was no shortage of rain in June.

In HGCA project report 502 a different conclusion was drawn on the influence of the weather on oilseed rape yields. It identified autumn conditions that could possibly lead to the development of an effective canopy and the establishment and retention of a good root system. In addition, similar to analyses in wheat (see blog posted on 8 July), it suggested that good levels of sunshine and low rainfall in April contributed towards higher UK yields. No association between June rainfall and rape yields was identified.

In this case, the researchers suggested that sunny and warm conditions in April resulted in good levels of photosynthesis and pollination. In contrast, March and April this year were cold, which delaying flowering, and also rainfall was generally above average. However, there may be other factors involved. The years 2011 and 2015 were good years for rape yields and both had very dry springs. This would have enabled good spring root growth, unimpaired by even temporary waterlogging. Hence, nutrient efficiency and the ability to explore the soil profile for water were improved. Therefore, perhaps the ability to access water during pod fill is the key rather than rain in June at a time when the level of photosynthesis is critically important. This is, in fact, the conclusion of the actual field research done in HGCA (AHDB) project 402.

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Tramline thinking

Posted on 08/08/2016 by Jim Orson

Many farmers voted for Brexit in order to reduce unnecessary red tape and legislation that they consider harmful to their businesses. However, it is hard to believe that the current environmental standards they are called on to achieve will be relaxed. For instance, the EU drinking water directive has an unscientifically set very low maximum for pesticide content in drinking water at the tap. Will Brexit change this? I really doubt it. Despite the difficulty this directive causes, it is only right that consumers have confidence in the water they drink. Relaxing the standard would be a hard sell.

Around the turn of the millennium, I was involved in an EU research project that aimed to reduce soil erosion on a landscape scale. It was led by the Burgermeister of a small German town who was fed up with the underground car parks filling up with silt after a heavy rain. One of the main findings was that around 80% of the water running off the surface of the cultivated area of fields was from tramlines; in that water were pesticides and nutrients. This came as a profound shock to me and to the farmers at the meetings at which the results were presented.

TramlineThis result, along with other projects, initiated efforts by the Voluntary Initiative and by pesticide manufacturers to reduce surface run-off from the cultivated field via tramlines. Many of the advised mitigation measures are common sense but the pressure remains to reduce further the pesticide levels in surface waters.

HGCA (now AHDB) funded a large project on establishing tramlines. The report concludes that “….. it is predominantly the substantial soil compaction which may be caused during the autumn spraying operation (mediated by soil conditions at that time) which is primarily responsible for the risk of run-off and diffuse pollution over winter months; rather than the lack of good ground cover from emerging vegetation”.

The details in the report of the conditions at the time of the use of tramlines are scant. I think the tramlines were established shortly after sowing winter wheat and there was only one pass in the replicated experiments. As the short summary of results I have quoted implies, sown tramlines were investigated. They appeared to be more successful in reducing run-off when very low tyre pressures were adopted but overall their impact was disappointing when tramlines were first used at, I think, crop pre-emergence or very early post-emergence. The results may have been different if the sown tramlines were first adopted at a later crop growth stage. However, sown tramlines come with the problem at harvest of later maturing plants.

Another conclusion is that using a self-propelled rotary harrow behind the rear tyres of the spray vehicle will reduce water flow along the tramlines. This is entirely logical but of course such a cultivator may not be as effective where there are multiple passes along the tramlines under wet conditions during the autumn/winter.

The project also modelled the impact of improved tramline management on a landscape scale. It came to the same conclusion as we did all those years ago in our EU project. Identifying high risk fields for water run-off is crucial. Getting it right in these fields has a disproportional benefit for the whole catchment. It is crucially important that each farm makes a real effort to identify high risk fields.

Getting it right, particularly in high risk fields, includes minimising the number of passes along the tramlines during the autumn/winter through crop choice/rotation as well as minimising soil compaction in the tramlines; this involves both the timing of the spraying operation and careful choice of tyres and tyre pressures on the spray vehicle. There is additional information on these issues on the Voluntary Initiative website and through the WaterAware App.

Improving water infiltration rates in the whole field is also important. One obvious way of achieving this is to use soil amendments regularly. However, most organic manures contain levels of nutrients which may increase the risk posed by nitrate and phosphate levels in the water lost from the field. Research work carried out by NIAB TAG, in a project funded by The Morley Agricultural Foundation, shows that green waste compost, which contains relatively low levels of nutrients, can substantially improve infiltration rates for a few years after application.

In addition, there needs to be a commonsense approach to the placement of tramlines. For instance, entering a field at the top of the slope is important because it prevents water running down the outside tramlines having a direct route out of the field. Naturally, establishing a grass based strip alongside any water course at the bottom of the field will reduce surface run-off. This strip has to be complete and will be more effective if there is a tramline, not connected to other tramlines, running in the parallel direction.

Tramline management is an important issue where Controlled Traffic is adopted and becomes an even greater challenge in fields where the risk of surface water run-off is already high. Great care needs to be taken on the layout of tramlines as well as their day-to-day management because minimising compaction can have a particular environmental premium.

So the message is that it comes down to common sense. Thankfully, farmers are usually extremely good at observing what is going on in their fields and using common sense measures to reduce problems.

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Brexit exposes lack of agricultural knowledge

Posted on 22/07/2016 by Jim Orson

I usually read the opinion columns in The Times. They are generally thoughtful and at times provocative. However, I was dismayed by the lack of understanding of agriculture shown in a piece by Emma Duncan on 9th July. She is an assistant editor of The Economist and so, in my view, should be more aware of how the economics of the industry ticks.

She was a Remainer and starts the article by saying that she has been looking for some good news from Brexit. She says that she has found solace that Brexit is likely to be bad news for ‘greedy farmers’. It appears from the article that she has complete disdain for the industry.

Her conclusion is that after Brexit there will be less support for agriculture leading to lower food prices, less intensive systems and land going out of production, so there will be more land available for building houses.Brexit Farmers

She is clearly thinking that we are receiving price support rather than support for eligible land area. Price support generally disappeared a couple of decades ago, although the sugar price is supported for another year or two. Hence, we are already competing in world markets and so removing current support measures will not reduce the product prices received by UK farmers.

As for making more land available for building houses, landowners already jump at the opportunity to get building permission. We do not have to see land going idle before they are willing to sell!

What really concerns me about this article is that an opinion-former is unaware of the real issues of food production in the UK. This does not bode well for public support for any agricultural subsidy arrangements post-Brexit.

To add to my concerns, Andrea Leadsom, the new Defra secretary, also seemed at one time to be unaware of the market issues relating to agricultural products. She has been quoted as a supporter of “reducing burdensome EU red-tape, saving farmers time and making food cheaper” and in 2007 argued that farming subsidies must be abolished.

I realise that there is a real hope that red tape can be reduced, but I think much will have to continue to reassure our customers that we have a transparent and traceable food chain.

Brexit may mean a return to more scientifically based decision-making, particularly for pesticides. Interestingly, there is concern expressed by some in the wider EU that decision-making will suffer because of less input from British scientists.

The future may possibly hold some advantages from Brexit but there is a huge challenge ahead to inform decision-makers, opinion-formers and the general public of the true context and importance of food production in the UK. Judging by the article in The Times, there is a long way to go.

Pesticide Regulations post-Brexit is a major theme of The BCPC Congress at Brighton in early October.

Blog 175

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