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Wheat Genome Alone Will Not Serve Sustainable Farming

Immediate release (29 Nov 2012)

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341 065

GM Freeze is warning that governments and scientists should not rely too heavily on wheat genetics to improve food security following the announcement that scientists have taken another step toward sequencing the wheat genome. [1]

Huge investments for genetically modifying wheat have been made by the BBSRC (grant to Rothamsted Research’s Wheat 20:20 project [2]) and the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation (US$10 million grant to the John Innes Centre for research into GM nitrogen fixing cereals). [3]

Yet UK investment in soil research currently amounts to a mere 1.25% of the country’s total annual R&D budget. [5] Similarly research into moving away from prairie style monocultures and developing more biodiverse and resilient methods of crop husbandry, as advocated by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, is not receiving the same level of public funding as GM and genomics. [6]

Completing the sequencing of the wheat genome will allow traditional plant breeding to introduce beneficial traits much more quickly using marker assisted selection, provided that access for all to the technology and knowledge is not blocked by patents.

Existing wheat varieties are capable of very high yields already. [4] However soil conditions, weather and an army of pests and diseases means that yields are well below the optimum, even when large amounts of artificial fertilizers and pesticides are applied.

Lincolnshire arable farmer Peter Lundgren said:

I welcome this news. This moves us on from the sterile GM era where the only beneficiary was corporate profit towards an era where biotechnology in the hands of responsible scientists has the potential to deliver what I need as a farmer to produce safe food profitably and sustainably.

Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

Traditional plant breeding using genomics and marker assisted selection has the potential to improve wheat yields faster and with fewer risks than GM, but only if prevailing environmental conditions are right. Very little effort is put into ensuring that crops are grown in optimum conditions. Soil management needs urgent attention, and farmers need scientific support to restore its health and ensure that the soil ecosystem is fully functioning to allow crops the best chance of performing well.

The challenges farmers face from the weather and climate change are enormous, and it’s impossible for farmers to second guess what nature will throw at them next. We need to invest far more in developing agroecological methods to grow biodiverse crops designed to minimise dependence on fossil-fuel inputs like artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

Many problems stem from poor farming practices and reliance on crop monocultures. We need to concentrate on developing multifunctional agroecosystems, which will be better able to cope with future challenges.

ENDs

Notes

[1] Nature, 28 November 2012. “Major Breakthrough in Deciphering Bread Wheat’s Genetic Code.” (copy available upon request)

[2] BBSRC, 13 June 2012. “Rothamsted and BBSRC launch ‘20:20 Wheat®’

[3] GM Freeze, 16 October 2012. GM Nitrogen Fixing Cereals: No silver bullet

[4] Farmers Weekly, 15 February 2012. “Winning with wheat: Meeting the challenge of growing record-breaking crops”. Conventionally-bred wheat varieties are capable of much higher yields than the UK average (around 8 tonnes/ha). A yield of over 15 tonnes/ha was recorded in the UK in 2011, just behind the world record of 15.637 tonnes/ha in New Zealand in 2010. This is currently achieved using high inputs of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and, in some cases, irrigation.

[5] Environmental Audit Committee, 5 September 2012. First Special Report –
Sustainable Food: Government Response to the Committee’s Eleventh Report of Session 2010-12