GM Science Review - Comments on First Report

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Name: Tom Addiscott Location (optional): Date: 14 October 2003
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Response by Professor Tom Addiscott,
Rothamsted Research (Retired) and Scientific Alliance

Sir David King and the review panel are to be congratulated on the way they have tackled a most difficult task in their report. None of the responses so far seems to have taken up the issue of land use that the report mentions.

The report identifies changes in land use that might result from the adoption of GM crops. These need to be considered in conjunction with existing pressures on land use, particularly that arising from the increased need for housing. An expert from English Nature recently argued that the best way to defend the countryside is to build houses on it. This is not necessarily the oxymoron it appears at first sight, providing the housing includes sufficient green spaces to provide wild-life corridors and assuming that the gardens offer good habitats for birds, butterflies and other desirable species. It would need to be done with great sensitivity but it is not impossible. What is necessary, however, is a clear understanding of what sort of countryside we want, and we need to know who decides.

A given level of agricultural productivity can be achieved in two ways, by farming a large area of land with low intensity or a smaller area with greater intensity. If appreciable areas of land are to be sacrificed to meet the needs for housing and "nature", we will need at least to retain, and possibly to increase the present level of intensity of farming on the remaining land, if we are not to increase our dependence on food imports. During the past 50 years food production has been increased principally though greater use of nitrogen fertilizer and plant protection chemicals and through major strides in conventional plant breeding. These changes have happened in conjunction as advances in plant breeding allowed more nitrogen to be used.

Environmental organizations have campaigned furiously against nitrogen fertilizers and the "poisonous" nitrate comes from them (and is also produced by the soil). Medical research has shown that nitrate is the keystone of the body's defence against bacterial food poisoning, but nitrate has still become a chemical pariah. Crop protection chemicals have received an equally bad press. If we wish to increase the production per hectare of food and industrially useful crops to make land available for housing and "nature", nitrogen fertilizers and crop protection chemicals will probably not be able to contribute much to the increase. That leaves plant breeding. Conventional plant breeding still has potential, but GM can speed up the development of this potential. It is surely very unwise to discard it before we even know what it can achieve.

Tom Addiscott