14 June 1996

Gene study may cut chemicals

By Allan Wright

GENE monitoring and genetic manipulations are helping the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Dundee cut farm production costs and improve output.

Geneticist Dr Stuart Swanston is mapping barley genes for spirit yield and also using DNA patterns to locate the genetic factors responsible for good malting and distilling qualities.

"This process allows us to select wheat directly for the best possible combination of genes, and is more rapid and can be performed earlier in breeding programmes than previous methods," Dr Swanston said at a recent institute open day.

"It is not affected by growing conditions and we expect it to be of major benefit to the Scottish whisky industry."

Trials initially used to give organic farmers potato varieties resistant to blight are now thought to hold answers for large-scale growers.

"The consumer regards fungicides as environmentally unfriendly and these new cultivars could enable conventional farmers to reduce chemical inputs and encourage more environmentally friendly, sustainable agriculture," said researcher Helen Stewart.

Colleague Dr Hugh Baker also believes that public opposition to chemical disease control will force big changes in the future.

"Virus control methods in crops will have to depend, to a much greater extent, on environmentally benign methods such as the use of virus resistant genes," he said.

"Chemicals do not combat virus infections directly, but control their insect and nematode vectors." That control would become increasingly difficult because of resistance and public concerns.