27 March 1998

Growers must guard GM added value

Genetically modified crops

and their produce are a

talking point from laboratory

to dinner table. Here

Andrew Swallow reports

the stance of New Farm

Crops, a part of Novartis

RUNNERS and riders in the genetically modified crops race are waiting in the starting gate. All have their own plan to implement once the legislative hurdles are cleared. Stephen Smith, managing director of New Farm Crops, is concerned growers may suffer as commercial arrangements are struck between breeders and processors.

"Farmers must think beyond the farm gate to claim their share of the added value of genetically modified crops," he says.

Advances in the nutritional composition of crop produce is one of three key areas GM crops will influence, he explains. It is an area where growers could easily miss out on their share of the returns.

Unlike herbicide tolerant crops, which bring direct cost savings to the farm, developments which benefit processors add value higher up the food chain, such as high value vegetable oils, or extra high malt extraction rates from barleys.

In a climate where farmers are receiving an ever decreasing share of the retail price of food, contracts to produce such crops should be negotiated to ensure an appropriate proportion of this added value is returned to the farm, and plant breeder, he believes.

Mr Smith emphasises Novartiss position in the plant breeding industry. "As an originator of genetically modified material our strategy is to retain a reasonable proportion of the value created by this technology in the developers hands."

He warns farmers that they could become little more than plantation managers for the large scale processors or retailers, with the management decisions for their crops dictated to them. The processor would supply the seed, demand the inputs, and set the end price.

This is not a reason to reject GM advances. But he stresses farmers would be wise to understand the value of the products to the processors. It may pay to forge alliances with breeders and processors to keep some of the gains from genetic improvements in the producers hands.

At present many GM crops are held up in the UK and Europe due to legislative delays. But Mr Smith accepts the reasons for this.

"If the public has a fear we should be cautious. In the industry we have perhaps been guilty of crediting the public with a greater understanding of agriculture than they have. If they understood that the average beet crop receives several herbicides, including residual products, then we could show glyphosate use is an advance in both environmental and cost-efficiency terms."

Novartis GM crops include cereals, vegetables, oilseed rape and nearest to the market, sugar beet.

Two herbicide tolerant varieties of beet are already in official trials. This autumn will be the second harvest for one, first for the other. Mr Smith is not prepared to disclose yield results. However, he is confident the material will have an agronomic performance comparable to current conventional varieties with the added value of herbicide tolerance, to glyphosate in this instance.

Herbicide tolerant winter oilseed rape is also being trialled by the company, but is not yet in national list trials. These include varieties with tolerance to herbicides other than glyphosate or glufosinate.

In barley, Novartis has already had some success in genetic modification of quality traits. However, Mr Smith says it will be at least 2004 before anything reaches the farm market.

Wheats genetically modified for disease resistance have been in trials with the company since 1994. But they are also at a very early stage.

Weed-free and healthy after glyphosate (foreground) – an obvious benefit to farmers of genetic modification. But Stephen Smith (inset) of New Farm Crops is concerned that farmers may miss out where genetic modifications increase the value of end-products for processors.

NOVARTIS GM STRATEGY

&#8226 Retain extra value of GM crops at farmer/breeder level.

&#8226 Herbicide tolerant beet nearest market.

&#8226 Disease resistant GM wheat?

&#8226 GM quality boost for barley?

&#8226 Legislation process necessary.

&#8226 Must recognise consumer concerns.