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Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

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'The Ugly Truth'

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Commercialisation of GM

Maurice Moloney Jonathan Jones

Professor Maurice Moloney and Professor Jonathan Jones answered your questions on cross pollination and GM on Monday 21st May 2012. Find out more about Jonathan and Maurice here. This discussion was also tweeted about under #dontdestroyresearch.

If you have a question on a plant science related issue then get in contact with our plant science panel via Twitter, @senseaboutsci using #plantsci, or email us at [email protected].


1. "What about the 'superweeds' and the high sales of proprietary chemicals always sold as necessary parts of GM cropping?"

Jonathan Jones: To object to the use of herbicides to control weeds because of a risk of superweeds is like objecting to antibiotics because they might select antibiotic resistant bacteria. As with antibiotics, it is better to be able to diversify which herbicides are used. Application of glyphosate has selected glyphosate resistant weeds; these are susceptible to other herbicides such as glufosinate or dicamba. Rotation of crop varieties with different herbicide resistances should restore weed control where it has been lost. Weeds can result in yield losses of up to 50%.

2.  "Presumably GM crops will become commercially owned and create shareholder profits. What about the ethics of patenting life?"

JJ: The seeds business is commercial; seed companies that are not go out of business. The patents apply not to “life” but to genes that have been discovered or changed to do something useful, or at least, something that farmers find helpful. Such genes include those for insect resistance, drought tolerance and those that facilitate weed control by herbicides.

3.  "You’ve spoken about sustainable farming. How is it sustainable if seed and agrochemicals are privately owned? And "sustainable" for whom? Rich world farmers?"

JJ: The real debate is about what kind of agriculture we want. Of course one wishes to minimize the impact of farming on wildlife; the truth is that all agriculture impacts wildlife. That’s why we want less of it. The way to achieve this is through higher yields, so we don’t need as much land to produce the same amount of food. 'Minimum till' agriculture contributes a lot to sustainability: ploughing is bad for the soil because it opens up organic matter for oxidation. Reducing insecticide use with Bt crops enhances sustainability. All of these approaches are facilitated by GM crops.

@blackgull 4. "Would directing more public money into GM move it away from corporate ownership? For example, Monsanto's Roundup Ready patent expires in 2014."

JJ: The short answer is, probably yes. The worst outcome for the public is monopoly ownership of technology. Public sector participation in discovery and deployment of GM traits has the potential to challenge such monopolies, especially if public GM traits are greeted with more goodwill than multinational GM traits. But eventually, any GM trait has to be brought to market by a seed company. However, public ownership of Intellectual Property (IP) can result in (where appropriate) ensuring non-exclusive access of IP to all players, rather than the use of IP to exclude competitors from markets.

Maurice Moloney: In fact, much of the opposition to GM has played into the hands of the corporations who would like extended monopolies. The activists have forced the science into a corner that only large corporations can manage financially. Public institutions are the best places to move forward such ideas.

5.  "Are you going to put the knowledge [gained from this trial] in the public domain?"

MM: Yes, it is our intention to use the current work simply as a scientific “proof of concept” with no commercial strings attached. It will be published and we hope it will inspire other researchers to extend the ‘natural chemical ecology’ approach to other crops, other environments and other pests. We can’t exclude that someone in a company may come up with a new idea based on this ‘proof of concept’, but that is just normal science: one idea inspires another thousand ideas.

6.  "Is there a way around large scale GM monoculture within 'tight space' UK to avoid non-GM/organic farms?"

JJ: What GM crops could one envisage in the UK? In the first instance, I could imagine blight/nematode resistant potatoes with other added useful traits, roundup ready sugar beet, roundup ready and aphid resistant wheat, herbicide tolerant rapeseed and maize, and rapeseed engineered for heart-healthy oils. For potato and wheat, there are no credible concerns about pollen transmission in the field. For sugar beet, the rare organic farmers buy seed rather than produce their own, and it is the beet that is harvested not the seed. For these three crops, there is no rational anxiety from neighbours, organic or otherwise. For maize and rapeseed, which have greater potential for pollen exchange, neighbours need to talk with each other. The same is true now; for example it is bad to grow high erucic acid rapeseed next door to rapeseed for human consumption; this is a serious but manageable issue.

7.  "In the United States where GM is allowed, GM crops have cross-pollinated with the crops of other non-GM farmers. These farmers have then been sued and financially ruined for infringing the patent of the corporations who developed the original GM crop. Doesn't introducing GM crops mean that eventually big corporations will own food production worldwide?"

JJ: There is a dispute between farmers such as Percy Schmeiser in Canada and Monsanto about whether enough RoundupReady rapeseed just “blew in” to result in the levels of the Monsanto trait that were found in Percy’s crop. I don’t think Monsanto sues farmers for 1% RoundupReady trait in a field that is 99% Roundup sensitive. After all, that level of the trait is absolutely no use to a farmer for weed control. What Monsanto wants to avoid is that farmers use a trait that cost tens of millions to create without paying for it. It’s like software theft; you can do it but ultimately it removes incentives for creative solutions to problems.

I think we should all be concerned about monopoly control. If there are multiple big corporations involved, competition (provided it's not accompanied by connivance and market rigging) helps keep them honest. A strong public sector seed breeding effort that includes GM might also help keep them honest.

@nick9000 8. "Assuming the GM wheat trial is a success how will it be commercialised? Will the UK tax payer benefit?"

MM: This idea is so far from commercialisation that it is hard to answer. If it clearly demonstrates the principle, there will undoubtedly be companies who will try refinements of the basic idea. The UK taxpayer will benefit in several ways. Once it is used in the UK and Europe it will reduce pesticide use, protect biodiversity and improve farm safety. On a broader scale, it is precisely this kind of technology that would help developing countries to achieve food security. This impacts upon the UK, because food insecurity causes wars, invasions and interruptions of supply of natural resources: all of which require the richer nations to intervene with aid, military assistance (peacekeeping) and long-term delicate diplomacy. So such technologies have a profound effect both nationally and internationally.

@typicalmalenick 9. "I presume GM seeds and progeny are owned by the company that developed them?"

JJ: GM companies often cross license. For example, Monsanto-owned Bt insect resistant maize traits were licensed to Pioneer/DuPont. So the seed company from whom the farmer buys the seed may not own the GM trait, but may own the variety into which it has been bred. The laws in US and Europe are not identical; in Europe plant variety rights enable other breeders to breed from released varieties, whereas in the US I think that varieties are patented, precluding breeding from competitors varieties (this is not in the public interest in my view).

@tancopsey 10. "I don't think anybody's really addressed the potential market for GM wheat - which is actually relevant to this debate isn't it?"

JJ: In some parts of the UK it is next to impossible to grow wheat because of blackgrass infestation, which is resistant to all herbicides allowed on wheat. Herbicide resistant wheat would greatly facilitate blackgrass control. Genes exist for enhanced yellow rust resistance, photosynthetic productivity, stress tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency; these would all help production. Wheat has 90,000 genes; after addition of 3 or so genes, it is still wheat, so in a rational world, nobody would even notice if these traits were deployed.

@SimonLLewis 11. "Who pays if the experiment causes problems beyond the research site? Does the research organisation have insurance?"

MM: Yes. Rothamsted, like all other research centres has liability insurance for all kinds of potential hazards. GM work would be considered by actuaries as a very small risk compared to many other activities inherent to biological or agricultural research: e.g. a manure spill with E. coli 0157 getting into ground water would be a much more common risk in agriculture and could have severe consequences. So yes, we do have insurance.

12.  "Wouldn't time/money/energy be better spent on selective breeding if you really believe in "working with nature"?"

JJ: This is a false antithesis. There is a lot of money being spent on selective breeding by Monsanto, Pioneer etc, in addition to the money spent on GM traits. These companies tend to say that of the required 50% increase in yields required by 2030, about half will come from breeding, and half from GM. We need every tool in the toolbox.

13.  "Any trace of gene transfer would affect where farmers can sell their produce. That seems to be where the argument is becoming focused. Any thoughts?"

MM: This is an artificial problem created by a regulatory system that is not founded in good science. In all food products, we have tolerance levels for traces of ‘contaminants’. Maize seed can have very low levels of mycotoxins allowed by law, organically grown fruits and vegetables are allowed trace amounts of copper sulphate (used as a fungicide). In general, we allow traces as long as they are safe. For GM the tolerance limits are frequently zero, which is unscientific and arbitrary. These should be based on safe tolerance limits. Given that many of the traits we are talking about are eaten daily by hundreds of millions of people, there are no incremental risks. In the case of our current field trial, wheat is self-pollinating and therefore no crops in the neighbourhood are at risk.

@morethanorganic 14. "How much funding did the BBSRC award to Rothamsted for this specific GMO wheat trial?"

MM: The award for the foundation scientific project (lab and greenhouse work) and the field trial was about £742,000. However, security has cost a further £150,000 on top of that. In a perfect world, that £150,000 would have been devoted to further research rather than trying to avoid vandalism.

15.  "It seems that many without science/engineering laboratory background experience are unaware of the timeline of ethics approval for research and the function of ethics boards. Could you give us a brief overview of the process of approval for GM research? Who are the key players in determining if an experiment is safe, worthwhile, and responsible? Who is involved in maintaining the integrity of the experiment as it is carried out?"

JJ: Probably every University biology lab in the country is undertaking GM experiments, though not all with plants, probably mostly with yeast, E. coli and other bacteria. We have a local biosafety committee that scrutinizes all proposals for biological experiments (not just for GM, also eg work with Salmonella); they are primarily mandated to protect health of laboratory workers but would also comment on ethical issues. DEFRA permission is required for all work with plant pathogens and for any field trial. There is no shortage of regulatory oversight.

16.  "If you don't sell the patent how will farmers benefit from your GM technology?"

MM: Farmers already benefit from public as well as private breeding programs without the involvement of patents. In fact, in North America, many wheat varieties are developed by public institutions and then sold through seed companies with no patenting involved. In the case of our work, if it were successful, we could provide a non-exclusive access to any wheat breeder who cared to use the trait. At the moment, this is impossible in Europe due to the complex regulations, but in the future it could be quite straightforward to provide such access to seed companies. Farmers could also save seed, because the aphid repellent trait like any other will pass from generation to generation.

@logikblok 17. "There are common concerns about corporate control. Will deregulation help small Biotech start-up businesses or larger corporate ones?"

JJ: Easier and cheaper deregulation will help both, but will alter the competitive landscape so that small players are less likely to be excluded from participation by excessive regulatory costs. The outcome should be more players, more diversity of offerings, more consumer choice and more creative solutions to problems than would result from the domination of the multinationals. Cheaper regulatory costs would also enable the public sector to deliver useful contributions more easily; part of the delay of getting Golden Rice to farmers has been the excessive regulatory burden.



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