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Talking Policy with Mike Hambly: AHDB publish GM report

With spring fast approaching and the first applications of nitrogen and sulphur made, thoughts are now focused on crop protection plans for 2015. This will necessitate dealing with problems which have developed over winter and from the previous cropping, including an abundance of volunteer ‘tame’ oats in my winter barley, a legacy of harvesting oats when the grain was ripe but the straw still very green, something which proved rather too taxing for the straw-walker on the combine.

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The choice of products available to me and their labelled usage conditions is getting ever smaller. The reliance on fewer actives increases the risk of resistance developing.


So, it is timely AHDB should publish an independent, evidence-based report on the economic and environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) cereals and oilseeds for UK agriculture.


This report, from the University of Reading, comprises a literature review, stakeholder consultations and financial modeling scenario. It specifically focuses on the science, ensuring objectivity, while recognising much of what is reported on the subject can be clouded by emotion.


The development and commercialisation of cereals with GM traits still seem to be some way from cultivation here. However, insecticide resistant (IR) maize and herbicide tolerant (HT) OSR is widely grown across the world and could be adopted in the UK.


From a UK growers perspective HT OSR could be of great interest. Herbicide programmes for OSR are limited, and could be further restricted as key actives are currently under review.


The report identifies 27% of world canola (OSR) production in 2012 was GM, with Canada heading the adoption of the technology with 97.5% of its production carrying GM technologies. Such high levels of uptake have been achieved as the HT trait has delivered higher yields, improved profitability, lowered production costs and ensured easier management.


The report concluded GM crop production carries no negative environmental impacts compared to conventional cropping and is likely to confer environmental advantages. This scenario was clearly illustrated to me last autumn, as a guest of US Soybean Export Council on a study trip to the States. GM technology, particularly HT traits, had helped a dramatic change in cultivation practices with increased adoption of zero till. The impact of reduced soil erosion on sensitive catchments such as Chesapeake Bay was recognised by government and environmental groups.


All too often we hear of potential environmental risks, often unsubstantiated, and yet there are clear examples of environmental benefits being delivered from adoption of GM technology.


The economic modeling in the report concluded that, in the case of IR maize and HT OSR, only in cases of continued pest and weed pressure did GM crops deliver a financial benefit over conventional crops. This is not unexpected; a similar scenario exists for the returns derived from fungicide applications determined by the level of disease pressure encountered.


Last year in Iowa, I met growers who were consciously choosing not to include IR technology in some of their maize crops. Continued use of the traits over many years had been successful in reducing pest pressure to levels where they considered the technology, and accompanying technology charge, was not justified.


I hope the report will facilitate objective thinking. Recent changes in EU legislation enable member states to exert some control over their GM policy.


The report highlights there is little to lose from adoption but, according to pest and weed pressures, we can gain from increased production and profitability while at the same time delivering environmental benefits and greenhouse gas savings.


Most importantly, in the final conclusions, the report highlights adoption of GM technology may be critical in preserving the competiveness of UK agriculture relative to the rest of the world. With such a clear message this report could be the catalyst to ignite objectivity over emotion.


Mike Hambly farms in a family farming partnership near Callington in south east Cornwall. He is currently the chair of the NFU Combinable Crops Board and is the first Cornishman to hold the position.


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