ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

8 November 2002


from nlpwessex. for all the links that go with this article:


Will This Be Blair's New 'Third Way'? The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech

GM Debate - Moving Towards A Solution

 "The truth is that wheat priced at just over £50/t or even £60/t isn't  sustainable for anyone... our thinking needs to be focussed downstream  at our markets, innovatively and laterally...[to] give us a worthwhile  competitive advantage.... The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting and they are achievable with existing technologies.  Within the wheat plant we have a vast reservoir of genes. We also have the advanced analytical equipment necessary to pinpoint the molecular characteristics     we need. And the marker-assisted systems to reliably build these   characteristics into high output varieties through conventional plant  breeding.... Our real challenge today is to work closely with the food industry and interest groups...." Jeff Cox, general manager for Monsanto Northern Europe   Farmers Weekly (UK), 30 Aug 2002

November 2002

Back in 1998 nlpwessex relayed through its GM news bulletin service a remarkable article in Farmers Weekly which reported on the annual meeting of the British Association For The Advancement Of Science. The title of the article was "NON-GM FUTURE IS MAPPED OUT" based on a paper presented by Professor Denis Murphy, head of the Brassicas and Oilseeds Department at the John Innes Centre, Europe's leading ag-biotech laboratory.

The article identified the enormous potential that resides in the non-gm aspects of modern biotechnology. The most promising area is generally referred to as 'marker assisted selection' (MAS), sometimes more loosely known as 'genomics'.

Since that time a series of endorsements for MAS technology - highlighting its advantages over the GM approach to plant breeding - have come from a diverse range of high profile sources. As reported in the nlpwessex bulletin of February 2000 entitled "Solution to the GM debate?", and in subsequent bulletins, these include:

   * The Soil Association (The UK's leading organic certification body)
   * The head of global plant breeding at Monsanto
   * The former Vice President of Research and Development at Calgene, the company that produced the world's first GM commercial crop - the flavr savr tomato (the current US Secretary of Agriculture, Anne Veneman, is also a former director of this company)

As illustrated in the article below from Farmers Weekly 30 August 2002, Jeff Cox, Monsanto's general manager for Northern Europe, has now joined the growing chorus of professionals who are extolling the promise of this technology for the future of modern plant breeding (for those new to this area we recommend the Soil Association's position paper on this subject as a useful introduction - click here).

What is especially interesting about Mr Cox's article is that his enthusiasm for the technology is proferred without any reference - either actual or implied - to genetically modified plant breeding programmes. This absolute omission is not something we have encountered before in a Monsanto penned article on modern plant breeding.

We would like to believe that this represents the beginning of a recognition by the biotechnology sector (which currently is in deep finacial trouble across the globe according to the October edition of the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology) that if it wishes to prosper it has to pursue those technologies which are acceptable to society as a whole. MAS is one of those technologies. It also happens to be the most useful.

In his article for Farmers Weekly, Mr Cox describes the possiblities offered by MAS as being "as endless as they are exciting".

However, this enthusiasm is not confined to the commercial sector. As it happens the September 2002 edition of 'ARIA' ( the newsletter of the UK's Arable Reseach Institute Association ) highlights the work being done in conjunction with Syngenta on developing drought tolerance in sugar beet using MAS (this is a much more important area of plant breeding than the relatively trivial, and increasingly self-defeating, issue of herbicide resistance - the principal output to date of GM crop technology which many consider global agriculture can easily live without).

Current MAS drought resistance work at ARIA's Broom's Barn research station is "directed towards locating molecular markers that identify regions in the chromosomes that control drought resistance. With marker assisted selection, environmental conditions during the breeding process are not important. Only at the final stages of variety development does the material need to be tested in the field under drought conditions.... drought tolerance is determined by the combination of many morpho-physilogical traits, and each trait is probably determined by several genes...".

The especial significance of MAS in this area is confirmed by the head of global plant breeding at Monsanto who states in an article entitled 'Wheat Future is in Bio-Tech Not GM' published in Farmers Weekly 25 February 2000 : "It's a numbers game and ultimately [non-GM] biotech offers the greatest potential..... Aligning 20 segments of desired genetic material using conventional breeding would take a one-in-a-trillion chance. Using molecular markers we can achieve it in three cycles." By contrast he confirms that GM technology is not adept at dealing with complex genetic interactions like these.

Later reports by Monsanto indicate that MAS can be expected to increase wheat yields (for example) at more than double the rate previously forecast by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation without the need to resort to genetically engineered strains. Other developments reported in the British farming press in relation to oilseed rape also indicate that similar advances can be expected in non-cereal crop categories.

Recognition of the shift in emphasis appears to be growing. As the editor of nlpwessex's GM news service pointed out in an interview on BBC Radio 4's Food Programme earlier this year: "I actually believe that we’re going to move on to a more sophisticated, more appropriate, more integrated form of genetics, based on applying gene mapping to conventional plant breeding, which clearly eminent voices in the biotechnology industry consider have great potential, including as it happens the head of plant breeding at Monsanto. So I regard genetically engineered technology as an interim technology, I think it’s going to become yesterday’s technology, and if we have a good debate we have a reasonable chance of finding the best solutions to creating a viable and sustainable agriculture in the future."  The immediate response from fellow studio guest and leading pro-GM advocate, Professor Vivian Moses of University College London and bio-industry funded CropGen, was at least partial agreement.

With so much available under MAS is it not time to put GM products to one side so that all participants in the current biotechnology debate can get on with doing something more constructive (like focusing on more critical issues in world agriculture such as sustainable soil and water management where the long term productivity gains to society for each dollar invested are likely to be far greater than any overall contribution from genetic engineering )?

As the latest article on this subject from Farmers Weekly seems to imply, the industry may be preparing itself to make a seismic shift away from the GM paradigm - at least in Europe. This would be particularly so if Monsanto's newly stated desire to "work closely with... interest groups" is taken at face value. If this prudent step is taken then we can expect ag-biotech share prices to significantly improve as public opposition to the sector falls away and the unfortunate and essentially unhelpful GM diversion reaches its long overdue expiry date.

Or to put it in the words of Professor Bob Goodman, former head of research and development at Calgene: "From a scientific perspective, the public argument about genetically-modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past. The science has moved on and we're now in the genomics era."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has largely abandoned 'old labour', so why not stay true to form and abandon 'old biotech' (i.e. organisms incorporating recombinant DNA)? Clinging to the fragmented approach of an inappropriate out-of-date technology is simply not progressive.

As an innovative 'third way' the growing recognition of the integrated approach of marker assisted selection as a solution to the intense debate about the future direction of biotechnology is full of promise. It ought to be attractive to the British Prime Minister. The question is - has anyone told him about it yet?


  GMOs - Does the British Prime Minister Know What He is Talking About?

 "With the controversy over genetically modified foods spreading across the globe and taking a toll on the stocks of companies with agricultural-biotechnology businesses, it's hard to see those companies as a good investment, even in the long term."
The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 7, 2000

"[Monsanto] The St. Louis-based maker of agricultural inputs and biotech seeds posted a net loss of $165 million, or 63 cents a share, in the third quarter, compared with a loss of $45 million, or 17 cents a share,  a year earlier..... Monsanto shares closed down 13 cents at $16.87 per share on the New York Stock Exchange, after falling by 3 percent earlier  Wednesday. The shares have traded between $13.25 and $36.35 in the last 12 months."  Monsanto posts wider loss as Roundup sales slump   Reuters, 30 October 2002


Farmers Weekly 30 August 2002

Unless it finds a new direction soon, the UK wheat industry will go into terminal decline, says Jeff Cox

   * Jeff Cox is general manager for Monsanto Northern Europe. Previously he led the company's Polish business and has also had responsibility for Monsanto's global wheat team.

As the combines finish the last of the UK wheat harvest in the south and continue their work in the north, it's time we found a new direction for UK wheat.   We need to find innovative ways of creating value for everyone in the UK wheat business; new directions that make our industry sustainable and worth investing in. Otherwise it faces terminal decline.

The truth is that wheat priced at just over £50/t or even £60/1 isn't sustainable for anyone. UK grain prices could recover a little in the coming few years, particularly if we join the Euro. But with the USA increasing farm subsidies, prices are in real danger of being depressed still further.

Amid all this uncertainty one thing is sure. Traditional grain markets are unlikely to offer more than mediocre returns for our wheat for the foreseeable future. Regardless of US policy, lower-cost eastern European and Black Sea producers will make sure of that — not to mention competition from the global maize industry which rules the feed grain market. The UK wheat industry cannot continue to serve its established domestic and export markets alone. These will not generate sufficient returns to justify investments for growers or the supply industry.

We must accept that continued upstream improvements in increasing yields or cutting costs won't offer enough extra long-term value to prevent the continued, steady decline. Instead, our thinking needs to be focussed downstream at our markets, innovatively and laterally, to build the extra value we need into our product. The sort of value that will give us a worthwhile competitive advantage.

Where will this value come from? Improved raw materials that provide extra efficiencies and quality to processors, perhaps. Or even better, foodstuffs with unique properties that generate extra consumer value at retail level. Properties that could lift the value of wheat in a loaf of bread from under £300/t to say £2000/t.

In the food market we have huge potential for improvement by focussing on three primary areas: taste and texture; health; and, convenience. Let's look in detail at the protein, starch and fibre that are our core products and see how we can give them increased value. Then, let's turn our attention to specialist products for a host of improved, non-food applications.

The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting and they are achievable with existing technologies.   Within the wheat plant we have a vast reservoir of genes. We also have the advanced analytical equipment necessary to pinpoint the molecular characteristics we need. And the marker-assisted systems to reliably build these characteristics into high output varieties through conventional plant breeding.

Our real challenge today is to work closely with the food  industry and interest groups to identify the most valuable areas for development from the market perspective, then focus our efforts on developing varieties and growing regimes to achieve them.

By harnessing the inherent genetic variation, modern technology and accumulated knowledge at our disposal in a co-ordinated way across the farming and food industry we can seize the many opportunities open to us. We have to do so rapidly in parallel with traditional variety and agronomic improvement programmes if we are to ensure our wheat industry has a future in the increasingly open, competitive and subsidy-free market we face.

Farmers Weekly 30 August 2002
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