Apocalypse postponed

17 Jul 2013

We will all be doomed if the latest GM trial goes ahead.

That’s what we’ve heard over the years from the eco-zealots. They’ve said on each occasion that ‘once the genie is out of the bottle there will be no going back’ and eco-meltdown is inevitable.

Well life seems to go on, despite these prophesies. No harm has resulted from the many GM trials held in the UK over the past couple of decades. Around 10% of the world’s crops are now GM and no adverse environmental or health issues have been recorded. This still doesn’t stop the now few from repeating the mantra of disaster whenever a trial in the UK is proposed.

I say the ‘now few’ because significantly less than 100 UK citizens turned up at last year’s ‘day of action’ to protest against the wheat trial at Rothamsted. They were supplemented by aroblackgrassund the same number from France. As far as I’m aware, no similar event has been planned for this year.

Protesters have increasingly adopted apocalyptic language over the last few years to make their case. For example, two or three years ago we had only 36 months to save the world from climate change. I assume that this type of language is deemed to be an effective way of catching our attention. It may not be rational or based on facts but it makes the headlines.

However, it’s now clear that the press has become very guarded about such statements. The sorry tale of sensationalising the false claims that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism lays heavily on the press’s conscience. This is why recent ‘scientific’ papers aimed at undermining glyphosate have not been reported. Rather than repeat these claims parrot fashion, the press now looks carefully at the provenance of these ‘scientific’ papers and takes advice from other scientists. Slowly but surely apocalyptic language is being replaced by rational debate.

I’m no stranger to such language having used it myself about black-grass over the past few years. It has become clear over this time that systems that are comprised only of early drilled winter wheat and winter oilseed-rape are indeed doomed. The inconvenient truth is that we cannot rely on herbicides alone and that some form of cultural control is required.

But again, life goes on. I recently visited the farm where we first identified high levels of herbicide resistance in black-grass in 1984. Despite this discovery, the farm still grows continuous wheat. Atlantis has come and gone and the struggle with the weed has become a white knuckle ride.

The cultural control measures that have NOT been adopted are ploughing (the soil is London Clay) or spring cropping. The cultural control measure that HAS been adopted is extremely late drilling. It is important that more than one flush of the weed is controlled with glyphosate before drilling is contemplated. There is still more black-grass than I would like to see but it isn’t out of control.

Luckily the farm is in the driest part of the country and in some recent years a significant area has been drilled ‘on the frost’. Naturally the drilling operation is fast and efficient and the operators are skilled and dedicated. Whilst the average low rainfall helps to facilitate late drilling it can also reduce the yield potential of late drilled crops. In addition, wet autumns can have a huge impact unless there is sufficient frost to enable winter drilling.

So whilst black-grass has wreaked a huge cost, mainly due to lost yield potential, the farm is not ‘doomed’. Similarly, those who have adopted a proportion of spring sown rather than winter sown cereals over the last few years have been pleasantly surprised by the returns they have received.

Each farm is different but there are a range of cultural control options that can be considered. Rather than just thinking ‘we’re doomed’, it’s important to recognise that the system may well be ‘doomed’ but the farm is not. For many, this is the time to sit down and work out the best strategy.