Farming Insight: The Sentry Conference coverage - Science sceptics, the forces of nature & the great GM debate

The Sentry Farming conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse in Newmarket.

The Sentry Farming conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse in Newmarket. - Credit: Archant

US farmer and agricultural prices researcher Daniel Basse is a pioneer and supporter of genetically-modified (GM) crops.

It hasn’t shaken his belief in the GM revolution, yet his report on the success of his own GM crops at this week’s farming conference in Newmarket, was, on the face of it, a troubling one.

Mother Nature was leading him a merry dance, he was forced to admit, and insects and weeds were now returning in force.

North America and most of the rest of the world, as delegates heard, are far less sceptical of science as a whole and of GM in particular than we are, and far more willing to wholeheartedly embrace its findings. Thus the GM revolution is in full swing Stateside, while we in Europe largely remain aloof.

Yet nature, Mr Basse found, had adapted far more quickly than anyone believed possible to his own ‘first generation’ GM maize crops in Wisconsin. They were becoming increasingly vulnerable to insects and weeds as time went on, despite the initial effectiveness of the crop, and he had now reverted to using chemicals to kill the pests.

“Mother Nature is winning,” Mr Basse told delegates gathered at the Rowley Mile race course, this year’s venue for the event following a devastating fire at its former venue, Chilford Hall in Cambridgeshire.

“What we found in the US is already the insects and the weeds are adapting much faster than we imagined. It’s taken between 14 and 16 years for them to win.”

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He had been “amazed” at how quickly nature had adapted, he said.

But he added that no US farmer wanted to give up on GM just yet. Speaking afterwards, he added that on the safety front, American farmers were happy, although very recently, US consumers had begun to ask for foods to be labelled GM.

“I have not grown a third leg, so we are happy about that, but the farm community has not been reaping the benefits,” he said. “GM is not the saviour of the world food crisis we hoped it was at one point.”

What would one of our most celebrated scientists, Charles Darwin, make of it all? Adaptable insects appear to prove his theory of evolution, but what of the evolving and complex human story in Europe, where the two sides of the debate are pitted against each other?

Mr Basse, the founder of AgResource Company, was clear that the GM revolution should go on. Science had to stay in front, he argued, and he still believes British farmers should pursue the battle to get GM crops approved. His own experience was of first generation GM and second, third and fourth generations may overcome these setbacks, he reasoned. There was a wide range of benefits to be had, including crops which could ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air, thus keeping soils fertile.

“We need to stay focused on water usage and fertiliser and things like that. We need to be thinking 20 years down the line constantly. It’s not as easy as it used to be,” he said.

Professor Maurice Moloney, chief executive at Rothamsted Research, echoed this sentiment. Overall, the experience of GM had been a positive one, he told conference-goers, and the benefits to be had in helping soil structures through minimal ploughing, and helping nature through less use of its resources, were compelling reasons to carry on with it and with biotechnology as a whole.

Last year, Rothamsted was the target of an attack by anti-GM protesters as it trialled a GM wheat variety, so the professor is fully aware that while the science might be complex, that’s nothing compared to the politics over here surrounding genetic modification.

But Professor Moloney, who has spent time in north America, and has witnessed its strong farming lobby and its pro-science culture at first hand, believes the Americans have got it right.

GM crops are widely grown across the world, although the crops grown have been focused on relatively few traits, he said. In the US, the uptake had been very high. By contrast, in some parts of Europe there was a “high level of suspicion”, and regulatory bodies are less trusted. He believed that in north America, urban cultures were still more connected to their rural counterparts than in Europe and this had helped get the positive message out. Less need to work the land, and the ability to plant into stubble meant fewer dustbowls, less loss of valuable topsoil and the creation of less greenhouse gas, the Americans had found.

“Why do farmers choose to spend that money and grow larger and larger acreages each year?” he asked. It was not down the the amazing marketing of companies like Monsanto, he argued, but the general effectiveness of the crop.

“It’s because the crops grow so well,” he said.

“There have been substantial enhancements of yields and that has been beneficial to farm income.”

But there was still that Darwinian factor to contend with – the ability of nature to bounce back.

“It’s not all sweetness and light and things have happened, and there’s no silver bullet in agriculture in anything,” he said. “It’s an ongoing war. We’ll never win the war against pests and pathogens, but we can lose it.”

The unintended consequences of GM appear to have been positive, he said. As far as resistant insects are concerned, such reverses haven’t happened very often.

“Dan (Basse) told us he’s actually having to start spraying insecticide,” he said. “We won’t win the war, but we can keep ahead of it with constant innovation.”

Resistant weeds had proved more of a problem. But if you don’t rotate chemistries in the same way you rotate crops, problems will occur, he said. Herbicides needed to be used judiciously, he added.

“The intervention of technology is vital,” he said. “It’s important for Europe at some point to get on the biotechnology train.”

The science was now in a position where instead of doing classical GM, it was possible to go into the plant genome.

“The question is how is it going to be regulated in Europe, because it isn’t GM. It looks like in north America they are not going to regulate it,” he said. “The question is how far behind this train can we risk getting.”

The technology was moving “very fast” and was being incorporated into agriculture in many parts of the world, he said. In reality, some traits will never be delivered by classic plant breeding.

The danger in Europe is that the gap between the costs of production globally and here will widen, and that more subsidy will be required to keep European agriculture afloat. The European consumer, meantime, will be faced with higher food prices, he said.

“Wherever GM crops have at least been permitted there’s never been a market reaction against them. Farmers have always tried them. There are no documented cases of harm to humans or livestock,” he said. The “Frankenfood” label adopted by GM opponents was a slur, he added.

“As far as I can see, opposition to the technology is not science-based. If it were, we would have a very interesting discussion.”

The need for ever and ever greater production to feed a hungry world was a theme which ran through the conference, along with the battle with climate change and debate over how much of the world could still,in practical terms, be exploited for farming.

Professor Tim Benton, the UK champion for global food security, talked of the dire consequences where we fail to tackle these issues. There was competition for land, and arguably no more available, and there was also competition for other resources such as water. Already, farming uses up about 70% of the world’s available fresh water, he said.

Agricultural production needs to become more sustainable by managing soil and the landscape better, he argued, or otherwise our ability to grow and sustain production will be threatened.

He showed, by demonstrating the ingredients in a KitKat chocolate biscuit, how food came from all over the world.

“Especially in the UK we have not got our heads round the fact that our food comes from many different places,” he said.

Over the next 40 years, the balance of middle class households will have shifted from the west to the east, he said. as the world becomes increasingly urbanised. Meanwhile, depending on how it is categorised, around 40% of our food goes to waste.

“Somehow we have got to do something about our over-consumption,” he said. However, even with less waste and over-consumption, more food will need to be grown. I can’t see a way that we are not going to need to grow considerably more food, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see where the yield growth, the supply growth, is going to come from.”