Monday, 23 May 2011

Genetically Modified Plants, Where are we now in the drought ridden UK?

The BBC Cambridgeshire's Andie Harper Show touched on the developing drought on this morning's progam and the topic of GMO crops and foods came up. It elicited a remarkable run of mainly positive comments, before resistance kicked in.

Until 2004, I worked as a researcher in the plant area and was responsible for biological safety, so I naturally turned to relevant online sources to see what the GMO release situation was in the UK and wider Europe at this moment in time.

Field trial application

A quick check on ACRE (The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) which regulates ALL UK field trials and releases of GMOs showed that in 2010, there were only:

Two applications for trials

  1. Nematode resistance in potatoes – my old colleagues in Leeds continuing their great work
  2. Potatoes modified for resistance to potato late blight – Sainsbury Lab

One EU Notification to renew authorisation to market:

  1. Carnations with altered flower colour – Florigene

Two applications to market GM food and feed

  1. Maize with Herbicide tolerance – Monsanto
  2. Maize with insect resistance (specific Lepidoptera and Coleoptera species)

There were also a number of applications to cultivate or import and process varieties for feed, where further assessments were awaited or where these had already been considered in the past.

(Source: Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment: Annual Report Number 17: 2010 http://archive.defra.gov.uk/acre/pdf/acre-annrpt17.pdf)

What was most striking about the numbers of applications for GMO releases to the environment was how these had plummeted throughout the EU, especially in the former leaders, France, UK and Germany.

The trend was countered in Spain, where there has been a steady increase in trials over the past decade. (Source GMO Compass http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/field_trials/).

Is plant GM work dead in the UK?

Of course not! Whilst trialling in the UK may be at a low, this does not prevent the continuation of ground breaking work in plant genetics in the UK and worldwide. Old challenges, such as making nitrogen fixing crops are being revisited and there is also current talk about third generation biofuel production using algal cultures that have been modified. Hopefully the latter will take away the threat of more farmland or natural habitats being converted for fuel generation.

The hidden benefits of GM technologies

What is often not realised is that the 99% of work required understanding a particular plant gene or set of genes before even making a transgenic crop plant is in itself extremely useful. So called Marker Assisted Breeding, using information from cloned and characterised genes, can ensure that new desirable traits can be moved into many crop plants by conventional breeding.

It will probably take a couple of decades yet in the UK for GM crops to become acceptable. This is ironic, in that many people have already experienced the benefits of GM technology in the production of their medicines and even the cheese they eat (by using purified rennet from transformed bacterial cultures rather than the stomachs of calves).

Back to the UK Drought

Will GM be important for adapting our crops to the drought in the UK? Well, it is more likely that farmers will adapt to growing drought tolerant crops here that have already proved themselves in other growing areas. Breeding programs work best when there is a variety of methods available, GM is just one option amongst many.

My personal solution? I’m still waiting for my pineapple top to root before I commit to buying my Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts!

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