UK: The inconvenient truth about GM

The Telegraph, 17 May 2013

Geoffrey Lean

Genetic modification has so far mainly been confined to developing crops that tolerate herbicides and resist pests. It has done little to increase yields

Some 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the Middle East’s fertile crescent, happenstance sowed the seeds of much of modern agriculture. Pollen from a wild goat grass landed on primitive wheat, creating a natural – but stronger and more productive – hybrid. Alert early farmers saved its seeds for growing their next harvests, starting a long process of development that has led to all the modern varieties of wheat that feed a third of the world’s people.

Now scientists at Britain’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) have deliberately duplicated that ancient accident, with a different goat grass, in an attempt to restart – and enormously accelerate – the process with new genes. Early indications are that this could increase wheat yields by a dramatic 30 per cent.

The National Farmers’ Union president, Peter Kendall, describes the potential as “just enormous”. And it is indeed the sort of breakthrough we desperately need, since – in little more than 35 years – the world will have to increase food production by a challenging 70 per cent if it is to feed its growing population. In the next half century, adds the NIAB, we will have to grow as much wheat as has been harvested since that original hybridisation occurred at the dawn of agriculture.

Hunger is rapidly rising up the agenda. David Cameron missed this week’s crucial vote on the Europe referendum because he was in New York to co-chair a UN panel setting new targets for tackling it, and will host a special hunger summit next month. And two important new books outlining solutions will feature at a session on “feeding the world” at the Telegraph Hay Festival, opening next week.

One is by Prof Sir Gordon Conway, formerly both President of the Rockefeller Foundation and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Development, who is one of the most thoughtful supporters of genetic modification. But what emerges from his book, One Billion Hungry, from this week’s breakthrough, and from a host of other evidence, is how little – so far, at least – GM technology is contributing to beating hunger.

It was not involved in the NIAB’s quantum leap, which was due to conventional breeding techniques. Nor was it involved, to give an example from Prof Conway’s book, in developing new varieties of African rice, called Nerica, which are up to four times as productive as traditional varieties, contain more protein, need a much shorter growing season, resist pests and diseases, thrive on poor soils and withstand drought.

The same is true of another of his superstars, Scuba Rice, which beats flooding by surviving 17 days underwater and still achieving enhanced yields – and, within three years, had been taken up by 3.5 million Asian farmers.

CGIAR – the international consortium of research centres that developed this miracle rice (and kicked off the Green Revolution more than half a century ago) – has also used non-GM techniques to produce more than 30 varieties of drought-tolerant maize, which have increased farmers’ yields by 20 to 30 per cent across 13 African countries; climbing beans that have trebled production in Central Africa; and wheats that thrive on salty soils. A host of other successes include blight-resistant potatoes and crops enriched with vitamin A, iron and other essential nutrients.

Genetic modification, by contrast, has so far mainly been confined to developing crops that tolerate herbicides (often manufactured by the same company, thus encouraging their use) and resist pests. They have done little to increase yields per se – though they have helped by controlling weeds and insects – while varieties designed to withstand drought and floods, and improve nutrition, are only now beginning to emerge.

GM may be able to do jobs that more conventional techniques cannot manage: conferring heat resistance to cope with global warming is one candidate. But the impression often given by its proponents that it is the main source of new crops, and thus essential to feed the world, could hardly be further from the truth.

Nor is biotechnology all GM. The Nerica rices, for example, owe their existence to cell tissue culture. Scuba rice was produced through the technique of marker-assisted selection, which identifies and enables the use of a whole sequence of genes.

But in the end new crops can only do so much. Most of the hungry, in a bitter irony, are themselves farmers who cannot produce, or afford, enough of it – and the new seeds are often beyond their reach. Prof Conway stresses the importance of helping such small, subsistence farmers grow more but it is the second book The Last Hunger Season – whose author, Roger Thurow, will be at Hay – that goes into detail on how to get them the help they need. Just as 10,000 years ago, the future rests on them.

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