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MARCH 2009



Think tank: GM could be top of the crops

March 15, 2009
Think tank: GM could be top of the crops
Could genetically modified food secure Irish farmers' future?
Dr Ewen Mullins

When the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was in place, Ireland concentrated on boosting crop yields by increased use of pesticides and fertilisers. Between 1985 and 2006, Irish cereal production increased by 4.6%, yet the area under cereals declined by 29%, from 380,000 hectares to 270,000.

But these dramatic efficiencies came with a significant social and environmental cost. The number of agricultural workers in Ireland has declined to approximately 40% of what it was in 1973 and there has been an enormous deterioration in water and soil quality. There has been a noticeable reduction in biological diversity on farms.

Equally dramatic changes are expected to occur in agriculture between now and 2030. The old target of producing cheap and abundant food has been replaced. Everyone agrees there is a need to farm in an efficient and sustainable manner.

A key challenge for countries such as Ireland is to produce sufficient supplies of food, feed and fuel without compromising on public health or having a negative impact on the environment.

Certain agricultural technologies, such as genetically modified (GM) crops, have been championed as a way to maximise production while having a minimal environmental impact. While their introduction has been hailed by some as positive, others regard it as negative because of perceived biosafety issues.

Last year, 125m hectares of GM crops were cultivated worldwide. As yet, though, Irish farmers have chosen not to grow them. The principle reason is the current suite of EU-approved GM crops is not suited to Ireland's agri-environment. But this will change in the near future as new varieties with increased disease resistance, elevated protein content and improved bioenergy potential come on stream.

The relevance of these crops is all the more real in light of the challenges facing Irish agriculture. Climate change will be hugely demanding for tillage farmers. By 2040, temperatures in Ireland are predicted to increase by 1.25-1.5C, with rainfall expected to increase by up to 15% in the winter months and to decrease by up to 20% over the summer.

The rise in temperature will increase the potential for crops such as forage maize, but weeds will adapt to climate change more quickly because of their genetic advantage. That means more robust herbicides will be required. There will also be a tendency for pests and diseases currently found further south in Europe to migrate north.

EU proposals to reduce the type of chemical fungicides available to farmers will undermine the existing programmes of disease-control for potato, wheat and barley, whose economic viability depends on farmers' ability to control fungal diseases. The EU's water-framework and nitrates directives aim to reduce eutrophication — an increase in chemical nutrients — in waterways and the application of nutrients on farmland. Increasing our production of biofuels on the same amount of land, while ensuring no loss of biodiversity, is a huge challenge that will be difficult to achieve without using proven technologies.

Reducing the use of fungicides and herbicides is a critical goal. In 2004, total chemical inputs for arable crops in Ireland totalled 1,520 tonnes, including 663 tonnes of herbicide, 619 of fungicide, 29 of insecticide and 209 of other products. New crops that are modified to resist disease will give Irish farmers the opportunity to reduce use of fungicides.

Potato varieties resistant to blight have been created and are now being tested. Potato farmers currently spray their crop with fungicides up to 14 times per growing season; a blight-tolerant variety could eliminate this. That would save the farmer up to €200 a hectare and reduce the crop's environmental impact. The introduction of GM crops has been greeted with scepticism, especially among the public. But the increase in food and feed prices, and the shortages of both experienced last year, may eventually change the public's opinion.

The cultivation of GM crops in Ireland, and in other EU countries that have so far resisted this technology, ultimately depends on how each of them responds to global market forces and European environmental legislation. These challenges will decide the crop varieties grown in Europe in the coming two decades and beyond.

Dr Ewen Mullins is a senior research officer at the Teagasc Crops Research Centre in Carlow. This is an excerpt from recent research published in Annals of Applied Biology.