Monsanto's decision to withdraw applications for GM crop cultivation in the EU is a further signal that the European GM approvals process is simply not working, and not surprisingly this is driving investment and research activity by the major commercial players out of the EU, to focus their efforts on those parts of the world which do have functioning regulatory systems and receptive markets.
This situation is set to place European agriculture at a significant competitive disadvantage, and deprive EU farmers and consumers of access to a technology which is delivering proven economic and environmental benefits for food production around the world.
Plant scientists and plant breeders need access to all available technologies, including GM, to provide adequate supplies of affordable food in the face of the combined challenges of global population growth, climate change, and pressure on the planet’s finite natural resources.
Looking forward, the UK needs to think seriously about how we harness, co-ordinate and exploit the public sector GM expertise within our research institutes and university departments, not only to support existing research but also to set future targets and priorities in the public interest.
UK-based research organisations such as NIAB, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted have world-leading skills and expertise in GM crop science. The fact is that GM technology enables key crop improvement opportunities to be realised which simply cannot be achieved through conventional breeding.
For example, alongside NIAB’s pioneering conventional wheat breeding work, scientists at NIAB and JIC are using GM techniques to boost wheat yields and reduce production costs by introducing novel sources of take-all resistance to the wheat plant. Take-all is a particularly intractable disease problem for wheat growers, with no truly effective means of chemical control and no sources of genetic resistance within the wheat gene pool. However, sources of take-all resistance have been identified in oats, but the only possible means of transferring that resistance into wheat is by using GM techniques.
Again, this early stage research is showing very promising signs of success as a means of boosting wheat yields and saving growers hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
Ground-breaking research such as this must find a route to market if we are to sustainably and affordably feed a rapidly growing world population.