Seeds of the future

When it comes to GM crops, Europe could learn a lot from the developing world.

Brian Thomas

Topics Science & Tech

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The use of genetically modified crops is well established throughout the world. The environmental benefits are being realised in developed and developing countries alike, by both small- and large-scale farmers. Britain and Europe, however, will miss out on the benefits of GM technology if current legislation is not changed.

To cope with the environmental challenges of the future, we need plants that can withstand adverse conditions and biotic stresses. Developing GM technologies – and actually applying them – could make an important contribution to future consumption demands.

In 2001, 130million acres of GM crops were grown in 13 different countries – a 19 percent increase on the amount grown in 2000. More than five million farmers now grow GM crops, in North America, Argentina, Australia, China, South Africa and elsewhere. Eastern European countries also appear keen to use GM technologies.

The most popular GM crops are soy beans, maize and cotton. In the USA, the penetration of GM crops in the soy bean and cotton markets has been significant. As a proportion of the worldwide crop, it is only in soy bean production that GM crops have made a big impact.

The most common traits created in GM crops are herbicide tolerance or insect resistance. GM crops have made a positive impact on the environment – and where GM technologies are well established, they have helped to reduce both herbicide and pesticide use.

GM crops have lower herbicide or pesticide requirements. Also, in GM zones where herbicides are still used there has been a switch to herbicides that have a less serious impact on the environment. In a study of insect-resistant GM cotton, it was shown that 70 percent needed no spray at all – and the rest only needed one spray, instead of the usual four to six sprays. As a result of GM cotton, between 1996 and 1998 total insecticide applications were reduced by an estimated three million litres.

In a study of herbicide-tolerant canola in Canada, the estimated benefit from 300,000 hectares of the crop was $6million. The study also noted better soil and moisture conservation. In herbicide-tolerant Sugar Beet, weed control was achieved with two sprays instead of seven to eight, and costs were reduced from £140 to £24 per acre. Biodiversity was also enhanced.

Currently in the UK, these kinds of studies are only taking place on farm-scale evaluations. Some time in 2003, we should have much more extensive and comprehensive validated data sets from which to draw conclusions. The studies carried out so far, however, seem to show some significant environmental benefits from GM crops.

Recent studies in Spain on Bt, or insect-resistant, maize pointed to reduced pesticide costs in farms across the region. On farms where GM maize was grown, the average income rose due to a reduction in pesticide costs of €24 to €104 per hectare – which more than offset the price premium for the biotech seed. Insecticides against pests, other than those that the maize was made resistant to, were still applied. Yet the estimated reduction of the area sprayed was 15,000 to 32,000 hectares – and if Bt maize were more widely available, this reduction would have been greater still.

In 1996, the Chinese authorities approved the release of some varieties of Bt cotton. The uptake of these technologies by Chinese farmers was dramatic – from virtually none in 1997, to a situation in 2001 where 30 percent of the Chinese cotton crop is now Bt cotton. The striking thing is that most of the uptake has been among small farmers with small holdings, on farms less than half a hectare in size.

Uptake of the Bt cotton has been associated with reduction in pesticide use. Some areas have pests – other than the boll worms that the Bt cotton is designed to be effective against – so some use of pesticides is still necessary.

The number of farmer poisonings in China has also been reduced significantly. Figures suggest that pesticide use over the past five years has been reduced by approximately 24 to 63kg per hectare, and farmer poisonings caused by pesticides have fallen in tandem.

In 2002, the Indian government granted approval for several GM crops to be grown, including Bt cotton. India grows nine million hectares of cotton a year. This may only represent six percent of India’s agricultural land, but it accounts for over half of India’s pesticide usage. The pest losses in the cotton crop are severe, and many Indian farmers find themselves in a spiral of debt, using ever-higher levels of pesticides to tackle the persistent pests. The situation is so desperate that some estimates claim that more than 100,000 Indian farmers have used pesticides to commit suicide.

One problem is that the regulations controlling the introduction of Bt cotton in India are far more rigorous than in China. The seeds are restricted, forcing some Indians to try to source GM seeds through non-legitimate means. There are also requirements for growing the crops with particular configurations, making it more difficult for some small farmers to access the technology.

Looking to the future – the world population is predicted to increase by 25 percent over the next 25 years, and consumption per head will also increase. But there is an important background to some of these changes; people who are more affluent tend to move from vegetarian to meat-eating diets. This produces significant demands on food and crop production, and most good quality land is already in use. The only good land not in use are forests and pastures – both of which play their own important roles.

Based on the extrapolation of current trends, it is estimated that the amount of land used to produce the additional food and agricultural products required by 2050 will only increase by a small amount. So it seems clear that there will have to be an intensification of farming, in order to meet the increased demands of the world’s rising population. Pesticide use is predicted rise threefold, compared to only a small increase in the amount of land being farmed. The implication is that pesticide dosages on crops will be higher.

We need to make serious changes to our policies on GM and the use of GM technologies, in order to break the predicted trends. Intensification demands will exist, whether they are satisfied through traditional, GM or organic crops.

These are some of the major problems we will encounter while trying to produce more crops. Plant scientists are trying to identify genes and produce modified plants that could potentially alleviate some of the problems outlined. We are not going to solve all of these issues with one technology, but with a combination of technologies – both GM and other types of technology.

It is often said that the environmental benefits of GM will be most apparent in developing countries – but this isn’t the whole story. Recent studies show that in 2000, GM crops reduced pesticide use by 22.3million kilograms. They also calculated what would happen if these technologies were used in Europe – if 50 percent of European maize, rape, sugar beet and cotton was genetically modified, the reductions would be 14.5million kg of pesticide, 7.5million hectares of crops not sprayed, 2.5million litres of diesel would be saved, and carbon dioxide output would be reduced by 73,000 tonnes.

Agriculture needs plants that can cope with the adverse environmental conditions we are likely to face in the coming years. GM crops and technologies offer us some hope for the future. But unless Europe changes its attitude to GM, it will be in no position to take advantage of the environmental and financial benefits.

Brian Thomas is research director in Crop Improvement and Biotechnology at Horticulture Research International in England. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at the ‘Fields of the Future’ conference organised by the Scientific Alliance in London in January 2003.

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