Can climate crisis help farmers win the argument over gene-edited crops?
PUBLISHED: 09:23 19 December 2019 | UPDATED: 10:39 19 December 2019
Mounting concerns over the climate and biodiversity crises can be used to amplify the farming industry's pleas to be liberated from "overly cautious" regulation, Norfolk farmers were told.
Mark Buckingham, corporate engagement leader for agro-chemical giant Bayer Crop Science, was one of the industry experts speaking at the "Shaping the Future" conference held by Honingham Thorpe-based purchasing co-operative AF Group at Dunston Hall, outside Norwich.
He said a "holistic" approach to innovation in seed breeding, plant genetics, protective chemistry and technology could help farmers feed a burgeoning world population while reducing their environmental impact - but only if new advances were approved more quickly.
He gave the example of gene editing, which allows scientists and breeders to target and control specific genes already in a plant species without inserting foreign DNA. He said the technology is being used to make citrus plants resistant to disease, generate better oil quality from soya beans, and improve the gluten characteristics in bread wheat. Bayer's own plant breeding pipeline includes a project to develop a more digestible, high energy silage maize based on a gene editing.
But last year's ruling by the European Court of Justice ruled that plants obtained by gene editing should be treated the same as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), most of which are banned from commercial cultivation in Europe.
"We hear a lot about the climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis," said Mr Buckingham. "These are real issues. We need a sense of urgency on this, but if we are serious about that then we should be enabling these tools that help us reduce our impact and be more productive.
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"What Europe has done is developed a set of very cautious and very slow decision-making process for regulation on technology around breeding chemistry and data. Precaution is good but if there is an emergency, if there is a crisis, then we need new tools. We need to do things differently and I think we should really use that message, because there is clear momentum that people are concerned about climate and concerned about biodiversity.
"Policy-makers are listening. Agriculture has that big impact in these areas and we need to be part of the solution and tell policy-makers how we can contribute to reduce our impact, and to maintain and safe affordable food supply, but we need access to these tools and innovation with a pragmatic approach. It is not about no regulation. It is about getting a sensible proportionate look at what risks are proposed getting closer to the market."
Mr Buckingham said the industry must wait to see if Brexit brings an opportunity for Britain to regulate itself differently - but public opinion would be crucial as any policy changes will be influenced by the demands of consumers and voters.
Earlier in the crop production conference, AF Group chief executive Jon Duffy outlined the four "megatrends" shaping the world's demand for food: a rapidly-growing world population, greater affluence sparking dietary change in developing countries, climate change, and the implementation of new technology.
Mr Buckingham agreed that agriculture was uniquely placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by these trends, but warned there were also challenges ranging from soil degradation and erosion to the competing demand of land for housing, development and conservation.
And he said chemistry remains a key tool in ensuring agriculture's sustainability.
"We have seen a lot of policy in recent years bearing down on chemistry," he said. "This idea of removing chemistry from agriculture, to me that's crazy. We don't talk about removing chemistry from the car industry or house-building industry.
"We need appropriate sustainable tools that are safe, and chemistry can be exactly that in agriculture. We should look with an open mind at each tool and each alternative so we can really balance decisions. That is where we need this platform approach of more resistant, more productive seeds from better breeding, more sustainable, lower impact, more targeted chemistry and better digital advice and information to help make those decisions about which seed, what planting density, what crop protection. So it is very much a holistic approach and we need an enabling regulatory approach to help us do that."