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Brian Johnson

Biotechnology in Agriculture – it may not be popular, but we may need it in Europe.

Dr Brian Johnson was for many years a senior member of staff at the environmental organisation English Nature. There he focused primarily on the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity. He was the initiator behind the Farm Scale Evaluations, Britain’s largest ecological experiment, and was involved in its implementation. The FSEs investigated the potential effects on biodiversity of cultivating genetically modified plants.

The text opposite is the presentation that Brian Johnson gave at the 36th international conference of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland on 14 September 2006 in Bremen.

Firstly, I would like to thank the organisers for allowing me to speak at this important event about such a controversial subject. It is an honour and a privilege to be able to speak at this meeting. I will start by telling you something about myself.

By training I am an ecological geneticist. I am also a lifelong Green who has worked in nature conservation for thirty years. I led the teams that successfully saved the English peat bogs from destruction and organised their restoration, and I headed up the team of dedicated people who saved the internationally important Somerset wetlands from the threat of intensive agriculture. Until recently I was head of agricultural technologies with English Nature, who first raised environmental concerns about the use of GM herbicide tolerant crops. With a colleague from Defra, Linda Smith, I initiated and helped to organise the largest ecological experiment in Britain, the Farm Scale Evaluations of GM herbicide tolerant crops. I have never worked for a biotechnology company, nor have I ever received funding from one. I say all this because what I have to say to you today may at first sight seem not to fit into my Green principles, but I hope I may at the very least promote some deeper debate about what we want ecologically from agricultural landscapes, and what tools we could use to get there.

I hope that as ecologists you will not take much convincing that agriculture needs to change if we are to sustain food production and enhance the environment. Agriculture is to my mind not sustainable, however you wish to define that elusive concept. Our food production, processing and distribution rely on large inputs of finite resources such as fossil fuels and chemical fertilisers. Agricultural management systems cause great harm to the environment; farmland biodiversity continues to fall towards zero, farms produce large quantities of greenhouse gases; and outputs from farming are some of the main causes of water pollution in our rural landscapes. With increasing climate change, agriculture increasingly relies on irrigation, with some 70% of all water extracted for human use going into agriculture. We have known all this for at least forty years yet the main cropping methods used in Europe have not substantially changed in that time, if anything they have become more harmful as farmers strive to win the battle for sunlight between their crops and wildlife.

“Even in organic systems, we are trapped in a mindset of always adapting the land to the needs of crops rather than adapting the crops to the needs of the land.”

So why have we not produced new cropping technologies that produce sufficient food, but are far less harmful to the environment? One reason may be that agricultural research aimed at this goal has been poorly funded over the past forty years with the lions share of money going towards production led research. To my mind this is a failure of European strategy at all levels and a disgrace, because we are all paying far too high a price for our food, not only in the shops but also in terms of the hidden costs of agriculture and in the damage that has been done to our environment.

But there is another important reason why we have not produced better agriculture, and that is our failure as scientists and policy makers to think radically about how crops are grown. Even in organic systems, we are trapped in a mindset of always adapting the land to the needs of crops rather than adapting the crops to the needs of the land. To some extent this is understandable because in the past adapting the land has been the cheapest and in some cases the only option, especially in the false economics of farming subsidies that not only distort how agriculture is conducted in Europe but also cause enormous hardship and poverty in the developing world.

“Given the fact that climate change is producing much drier summers in Europe, we need to conserve precious water in the near future, and using drought resistant crops is a good way to achieve this.”

But that cushioned economic situation is changing fast partly due to CAP reform and partly because of stiff competition from abroad, together with the increasing realisation that the hidden costs of agriculture need to be addressed. I believe that the EU is right to go down this path, but it may have profound implications for agricultural land management. As agriculture moves towards free markets and relies less on subsidies, farms may become more industrialised to compete or have to find methods of reducing inputs. Now is the time that we need more than ever to think about changing the way we produce food.

New cropping methods almost inevitably need new crop varieties. The radical change from spring-sown crops to winter cropping that now dominates commodity cereal production is a good example, where new cold tolerant varieties were combined with new fungicides to enable the change to be made. We now know that this change to winter cropping seriously reduced farmland bird populations, and the diversity and abundance of arable plants and insects. We are seeing a similar process underway with the development of new forage maize varieties that enable farmers to grow the crop further north than ever before. These are production led developments, not orientated towards sustainability.

How could changing cropping systems produce more sustainable agriculture? Here are some ideas that I have gleaned from discussions with several leading agriculturalists worldwide.

Firstly we need to address issues around the use of finite resources. For example, why do we continue to plough land annually to accommodate annual crops? Why not try to make food crops perennials with high disease resistance? They would not only dramatically cut fossil fuel inputs but should avoid the soil degradation that is now so common in arable areas. We are beginning to understand the genetics of perennity and we have more and more knowledge about disease resistance genes, so we are almost ready to apply some of this knowledge to crops. There is also the issue of the increasing use of irrigation in agriculture.

“Biotechnology can quickly and easily give us the crops we need for a new more environmentally sustainable agriculture.”

New drought resistance genes are being discovered almost monthly, mostly from research in the Far East and the Americas. Some examples are the trehalose genes used by Ajay Garg & Ray Wu at in rice at Cornell and the DREB/RD29a complexes used by Alesandro Pellegrineschi and his co-workers in wheat at CIMMYT. As you can see, they have already been used to construct experimental crop plants that are highly drought resistant yet still produce good (in some cases better) yields. Most of the debate about their use has centred around the fact that they can be used in developing countries where severe drought threatens the lives of whole populations, but what seems to have been missed is that these crops use far less water to develop normally, in some cases over 70% less water. Given the fact that climate change is producing much drier summers in Europe, we need to conserve precious water in the near future, and using drought resistant crops is a good way to achieve this.

To make agriculture even more sustainable we also need to use fewer chemicals on our land. To produce crops that fix their own nitrogen seems a distant dream but some surprising research results this year have brought the dream closer to reality. Much closer to reality is the discovery of new pest and disease resistance genes in a range of plants and other organisms. Some of these can already be transferred to crops and produce a useful tool in the arms race between or crops and the organisms that also want to eat them. Transferring pest and disease resistance traits to commodity crops, fruit and vegetables could give us ‘quasi-organic’ cropping systems.

“But we can produce systems that are more´sustainable than those in the past.”

I could easily add to this wish list of desirable crop traits but I do not have time. By now you will have realised that many of these traits do not occur naturally in the gene pools of our traditional crops or in those of their ancestors. So we are unlikely to produce crops for a new agriculture using conventional breeding methods, or even by using mutagenesis and marker-assisted breeding. Even if we could, we may not have the time. Biotechnology can quickly and easily give us the crops we need for a new more environmentally sustainable agriculture.

So we have a stark choice: either we continue with more of the same damaging agriculture, or we start to think about radical changes in cropping methods using new varieties. I argue for the latter: we need to think “out of the box” and soon.

We are told by the media that there is deep opposition to biotechnology in Europe; but is this really true? We eagerly accept the products of medical biotechnology. Only last week there was a story about the first successful transformation of human cells to combat skin cancer. Humans have been eating food produced by transgenic microorganisms for nearly twenty years, yet there is still opposition to biotechnology as a technology.

“We have introduced new cropping systems into our landscapes with almost no prior knowledge of their impacts on biodiversity, soils and pollution.”

It is difficult to think of a technology that does not carry risks (most of them unknown until the technology ‘matures’), is not exploited by large companies, and could not be used for both damaging and beneficial purposes. I consider opposition to technologies per se as philosophically unsound and unreasonable, taking Heidegger’s view that we can only use technologies wisely when we know enough about their effects, including their potential risks and benefits. Heidegger did not use the term, but he was defining the concept of technological sustainability, a concept that is fast becoming a new societal moral.

Sustainability is not necessarily an absolute concept in the sense that we can ever achieve it, because our population densities and high resource demands make for an increasingly unsustainable environment. But we can produce systems that are more sustainable than those in the past and we have the ability to be able to quantify the key characteristics of such systems in ecological terms such as impacts on carbon balance and biodiversity. Yet in Europe we have regulatory systems for transgenic organisms that do not take these characteristics into account but focus almost exclusively on risk assessment. Regulatory systems worldwide (with the creditable exception of the Canadian novel plant regulatory system) do not assess risks against benefits and do not include assessment of novel organisms produced by non-transgenic methods. Some of these methods, such as mutagenesis and hybridity, produce organisms with genomes that are radically different from their ancestors and which contain genes that are not only not found in wild gene pools but are also completely novel.

“We need to move to a regulatory system that not only screens all novel organisms for potential risks, but also performs a sustainability assessment of the organism and its management system.”

With the possible exception of GM herbicide tolerant crops in the UK, we have introduced new cropping systems into our landscapes with almost no prior knowledge of their impacts on biodiversity, soils and pollution. Decades after introduction we have seen damage to bird populations, wild plants and insects and society spends millions of Euros each year trying to treat water from aquifers polluted by these cropping systems. In my view we need to move to a regulatory system that not only screens all novel organisms for potential risks, but also performs a sustainability assessment of the organism and its management system, comparing the key characteristics of the system with those of the ‘conventional’ system. Where cropping systems are concerned this could include impacts of biodiversity, carbon balance of the growing cycle, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, and outputs such as air and water pollutants. I would also add assessment of the rates and especially the impacts of gene flow to other crops and to wild relatives. There is a thriving industry measuring rates of gene flow, but I am much more interested in potential impacts on fitness and on food webs and I would like to see far more research in this intellectually challenging area.

Although I argue that it is unreasonable to oppose biotechnology per se, it is however reasonable to be sceptical about the products of biotechnology, especially where risks from food safety and impacts on the environment are concerned. In Europe we have a rigorous regulatory system for transgenic organisms that demands evidence on gene flow, environmental and food safety, and compares ‘conventional’ against ‘transgenic’ management systems, yet we continue to reject the technology itself even when, as in the case of GM herbicide tolerant maize, the management system has been demonstrated to be better for the environment, and the maize is as safe as cattle feed as the conventional crop.

“This rejection of biotechnology has no scientific or rational basis, and Europeans are rejecting a potentially powerful tool for producing better agriculture. “

This rejection of biotechnology has no scientific or rational basis, and Europeans are rejecting a potentially powerful tool for producing better agriculture. As an ecologist and environmentalist, I cannot see the sense in this, and urge you all to reconsider this position and to campaign for more publicly funded research into the potential use of biotechnology and other new breeding methods in the search for more environmentally sustainable agriculture. I do not expect you all to agree with this view but I want to keep this debate alive and vigorous. Using biotechnology may turn out to be as important as the other great revolutions in agriculture have been in past, so the topic needs to be taken seriously, as it is in many other parts of the world. We can watch and wait – but for how long can we tolerate the ongoing damage to our environment? Let us reopen a scientifically mature debate on biotechnology in agriculture, and let us as scientists debate the subject without the distraction of campaigns against a technology that in industry, medicine and agriculture worldwide is beginning to show great promise in achieving goals that have previously eluded us.