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Gates Bankrolls GM Nitrogen Fixing, More Important Work Starved of Funds Embargoed for 08.00 hours

Embargoed (15 Jul 2012)

Calls to: Pete Riley 07903 341065

Today’s announcement that the Gates Foundation has given the John Innes Centre US$10 million to research GM nitrogen fixing cereals, including maize in Sub-Sarahan Africa, [1] was described by GM Freeze as a waste of money that should have been used on more important and productive research.

The Gates Foundation has a record of backing GM research and supporting intensive farming techniques in the Global South, including massive support for nitrogen fertilisers. [2] African farmers demand a bigger say in deciding the direction agricultural research will take to ensure it builds on their knowledge and meets their needs and priorities. [3]

GM Freeze points out that nitrogen fixing wheat and other cereals have been promised by the GM industry for several decades. Real world results are limited however because the changes GM forces plants to make are genetically and ecologically very complex and the fact that the nitrogen fixing bacterium used in attempted GM naturally forms a symbiotic relationship with leguminous plants, such as beans and clover, not cereals.

GM Freeze says the answer lies in long crop rotations using crops that build soil fertility naturally by fixing nitrogen. These include beans, peas, clovers, vetches and lucerne, which are also useful as food or animal feed. Other farming techniques that work without GM include building soil organic matter and improving soil structure and ability to hold water. Undersowing cereal crops with a nitrogen fixing crop, such as clover, was once recommended to farmers, but the advent of cheap artificial fertilisers has seen the practice die out in intensive arable production.

In East Africa the highly successful non-GM Push-Pull method of pest and weed control in maize involves undersowing with a nitrogen fixing plant, Desmodium, which simultaneously suppresses Striga (a parasitic weed of maize) and improves soil fertility while increasing maize yields from about 1 tonne per hectare to 3.5 tonnes per hectare. [4] This is a perfect example of multiple benefits arising from a simple change that does not involve expensive research and can be taught by farmers to each other at field level.

GM Freeze also warns that nitrogen fixing wheat could lead to farmers adopting shorter rotations based on a very few crops, which will increase agronomic problems later. Longer rotations mean that weeds, pest and diseases are controlled alongside soil improvements. There are no quick fixes, but there are plenty of approaches that can provide a multitude of synergistic benefits, including increasing soil organic matter, nutrient levels and water retention.

Nitrogen pollution from fertilisers, farm waste and sewage is a major problem globally that pollutes fresh water, the seas and the atmosphere, as well as accelerating global warming. GM Freeze says we need to apply our existing knowledge and develop new techniques to make sure that nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients are not wasted and cause pollution. Such fertilisers are also increasingly expensive as supplies dwindle.

Commenting on the Gates Foundation grant to the John Innes Centre, Mariam Mayet from the African Centre for Biodiversity in South Africa said:

GM nitrogen fixing crops are not the answer to improving the fertility of Africa’s soils. African farmers are the last people to be asked about such projects. This often results in the wrong technologies being developed, which many farmers simply cannot afford. We need methods that we can control aimed at building up resilient soils that are both fertile and able to cope with extreme weather. We also want our knowledge and skills to be respected and not to have inappropriate solutions imposed on us by distant institutions, charitable bodies or governments.

Pete Riley, Campaign Director of GM Freeze, added:

This project is a waste of money that should have been used on more important and urgent research.

Depleted soils are a big problem in many places. In Europe and North America we also need to rebuild our soil structure and fertility after 60 years of nutrient draining, intensive production. This means longer rotations and greater crop diversity, including existing nitrogen fixing crops. GM technology moves in the wrong direction and assumes we can find ways to force more food out of exhausted soils rather than working with the soil for productivity now and into the future.

We also need to ensure that nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients are not wasted by poor handling of organic waste, badly designed sewage treatment processes and abandonment of sound farming practices. GM nitrogen fixing crops have not shown much progress to date, and waiting decades longer for institutions like The Gates Foundation and John Innes Centre to play around with the genetics, and maybe fail, is not a good use of money when we know where the answers lie.

If the Gates Foundation wants ideas on how to spend US$10 million more productively, soil scientists from around the world will not be short of ideas.



1. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “John Innes Centre, June 2012. Purpose: To test the feasibility of developing cereal crops capable of fixing nitrogen as an environmentally-sustainable approach for small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to increase maize yields

2. GM Freeze, October 2011. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Biotechnology and Intensive Farming

3. IIED, 2010. “Democratising Agricultural Research. Seed Selection: What type of agricultural research is needed?

4. ICIPE, African Insect Science for Food and Health, 2012. “Push-Pull: A novel farming system for ending hunger and poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa