Plant breeders stand on the verge of a revolution which could bring enormous benefits to EU farmers - but only if regulators put science before politics, according to Bayer CropScience’s global head of research and development.
In an interview with Farmers Guardian, Adrian Percy outlined the steps Bayer was taking to respond to the challenges around yields and the environment farmers around the world currently face.
But he warned the regulatory barriers companies like Bayer were up against in the EU was in danger of putting a brake on this sort of innovation.
Dr Percy said there had been ‘an explosion in science’ in recent years, at the forefront of this stands gene editing, a precision technology Bayer has been working on for a number of years which enables scientists to ‘edit’ a plant’s genetic sequence without inserting new genes.
Bayer is using a branch of it, CRISPR Cas, to, for example, try to get to the bottom of the complex genetic interactions which determine yield.
Dr Percy, who stressed the company was ’driven by innovation, said: “We are really excited about CRISPR Cas. It is helping us to make what we have always done through conventional breeding – it is just speeding up the whole process and helping us be much more precise and efficient.
“It means we can bring new varieties to the marketplace in a much shorter time and be more reactive to emerging issues growers might have.”
He said products could potentially be available in the EU in a ‘five to 10 year horizon’ but this would be largely dependent on the political landscape.
He acknowledged, however, that while the technology is being embraced in other parts of the world, such as the US and Argentina, a ‘cloud’ is hanging over it in Europe.
The European Commission is currently working on the legal definition of new technologies such as gene editing.
The Commission’s initial opinion, the first formal step in a process which will ultimately determine whether they should be classed as genetically modified (GM), was due towards the end of 2015 but has still not seen the light of day, with further delay now being reported.
While some member states, including the UK and Sweden, have been supportive of the technology, the outcome is impossible to predict.
Environmental organisations are seeking to derail the technology, claiming it poses a risk to the environment and human health and should be classified as GM, a result that would be damaging for its development.
Dr Percy said: “It is a concern for us. Ultimately, if doesn’t go in a logical and scientific manner it could really torpedo the emergence of some of these technologies in Europe and we will be holding back innovation for no good reason.”
“It is not trying to bring GM in through the back door as some non governmental organisations claim. We are a big supporter of GM but these technologies are completely different.
"We are not introducing any new DNA, it is about maximising the efficiency of the plant to produce better yield and getting products in the hands of growers more quickly."
He urged supportive EU Governments such as the UK, the plant breeding industry and farmers, to visibly ‘push’ for the new technology at EU level, as the debate unfolded.
If a powerful case could be made about the benefits of this technology and, at the same time concerns about its risks be addressed, the outcome could be positive, he said.
“There are always political pressures but I am very positive because this is something that is easy to distinguish scientifically and from a communications perspective from a GM trait."
Dr Percy was less upbeat about GM technology, despite efforts taken to give individual member states more of a say on authorising GM products in a bid to break the regulatory impasse that has seen the technology grind to a halt in Europe.
Even if the regulatory outlook was favourable, no products are currently being developed, he said.
“We always live in hope. Right now the signs are not particularly positive but while we don’t expect anything to happen in the short or medium term, we are continuing to work on crops which have relevance for the UK and other markets, so if the situation changed we would be able to grow them.”
Bayer is also keeping a close eye on the way pesticides are being regulated in the EU. Bayers’ Imidacloprid is one of the products affected by the current EU neonicotinoid ban in flowering crops, a source of frustration for the company.
Dr Percy said he hoped largescale field trials in the UK and elsewhere in Europe would provide clear evidence about the impact of these chemicals on bees.
“It is frustrating because from a scientific perspective we really believe neonicotinoids are very beneficial to growers around the world. It would be a backward step if we lose this chemistry as we would see growers going back to older chemistry, with a loss positive environmental profile.”
The company will continue to support these products but, at the same, has one eye on an EU regulatory framework that is increasingly hostile to crop protection products currently on the market.
“We are very mindful of the regulatory situation both in Europe and around the world so we are continually striving to bring to the market products which better and better environmental profiles," he said.
This includes a big focus on biological products using bacteria isolated from the soil which have certain beneficial insecticidal or fungicidal properties. They can be incorporated into foliar sprays, seed treatments or soil drenches, in some cases, including products currently on the market, in combination ith chemistry.
The company is currently analysing and sequencing a ‘library of 100,000 bacterial and fungal strains’ in search of beneficial properties.
“There are still regulatory hurdles but we can get these through the process quicker than with chemistry,” Dr Percy said.
With Brussels having a huge, sometimes restrictive negative impact on Bayer’s operations, Dr Percy had an interesting perspective on the Brexit debate.
He said: ”For me the UK has a strong voice in Europe and a very rational and comparatively strong scientific approach to a lot of these issues. I would hope the UK’s seat in Brussels remains.
"If we lose that seat, from a scientific perspective, we would all be worse off."
Despite the problems many farmers are currently experiencing, agriculture is ‘an exciting place to, Dr Percy concluded.
As well as the work around life sciences, he highlighted developments in digitisation, precision farming and robotics, which all stand to transform agriculture in the not-too-distant future.
Over the last two years, Bayer has looked at potential collaborations in these areas with 1,500 companies, including the likes of Google and IBM alongside many smaller companies.
“There is a lot of money coming into agriculture. Innovation is what drives us as a business and we are working together with others to bring innovation to the marketplace,” Mr Percy said.