21 February 1997

New techniques vital as food demand rises

PRODUCERS cannot expect to meet increased global demand for food in the next 30-40 years with current production methods, said Brian Heap former director of the Babraham Institute, Cambridge.

And without another agricultural revolution the future for some of the less developed countries looked grim, he told the conference.

Biotechnology could help to exploit the growing world-wide demand for animal products and meet the demands for sustainable farming systems, he said.

Genome mapping, marker assisted selection, new vaccines and disease diagnostic procedures, developed through biotechnology offered new opportunities for preserving the livestock gene pool, improving feed efficiency and protecting animal health.

Northumberland dairy farmer John Moffitt also pointed out that biotechnology covered such a broad spectrum of techniques that it could not be accepted or rejected without first understanding its application.

Only then could the benefits, risks and ethical concerns be assessed.

The main worry among farmers, he said was fear – fear of the unknown, fear that the new science would produce something strange and potentially dangerous and fear that the consumer would rebel against manipulated products.

But he personally took "a pragmatic view on the basis that if we are to compete in the world market for food, then we have to take advantage of the science that can provide the tools to increase performance and efficiency".

If genetic engineers, by gene targeting, could improve disease resistance without resorting to antibiotics and other potentially dangerous drugs, then the consumer and farmer would benefit.

And if the compositional quality of milk could be changed to make it more attractive, advantage should be taken.

But success would depend on the ability of scientists and farmers to appreciate public concerns and portray benefits effectively.

"We know, of course, that with animals this technology is not going to happen overnight; the scientist has a great deal of work to do before he can deliver to the farmer but we have to prepare ourselves by communicating the benefits as soon as they emerge," he said.