As we head into the new year, it is clear what is on the menu - more of the same. The pandemic is moving at a sobering pace and keeping us all doing what we’ve been getting used to; staying home and getting on with it.
As predicted, the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel and for once it seems like the UK is ahead of the curve.
It now seems at least reasonable to expect some level of normality in the late spring or summer. In other words us sheep farmers will just have to keep our heads down until after lambing.
Cattle are getting nearer calving and sheep are in good condition after their mid winter fluke dose and silage diet.
Perhaps the couple of weeks of snow that we had lately came at the right time and focused our minds on looking after those that otherwise would have lost a bit of condition before scanning, which is coming up over the next week or so.
Recent commitments from Government to consult on gene editing will be music to the ears of the research community and keen breeders of livestock and crops.
The promise of super-fast breeding progress certainly offers potentially huge leaps in productivity across agriculture, and without the problems associated with ’traditional breeding’ and genetic linkage.
Avoiding the unintended consequences of in-breeding, genetic changes can be made quickly and without the prohibitive expense usually associated with cutting-edge technology.
Not to say, however, that anything is that easy.
The technology for altering our agricultural products to benefit production through disease resistance or to enhance the nutritional benefits of a certain crop has been around for decades. It is the political will which is the ultimate stumbling block.
Public opinion in the EU regarding GM food is staunchly against its use and even though there may be the farming skill on the ground and world leading research industry to back it up, development of GM technology has been kept at arms length.
A classic example is Golden Rice which was developed in the 1990s. This is a crop which simply incorporated the gene to produce vitamin A and had the potential to nourish millions of children who attempt to survive on a nutritionally deficient diet of white rice.
Its use was, however, blocked for over two decades by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and also Greenpeace for presenting a threat to human health. Little wonder we don’t always see eye-to-eye.
The term GM is toxic and if we are to realise the potential of gene editing for agriculture, it seems we would need a reinvention of the terms around how we discuss the technology. More ’sustainably improved’, less ’genetically modified’ perhaps.
Simple advances such as widespread polled alleles in cattle would be a start for livestock.
Initial small steps as a demonstration of safety and potential are easily achievable if we have a forward thinking government which is willing to move away from the guilty until proven innocent approach of the EU.