20 September 1996

Working group to pave way for modified crops

CALLS for a cross-industry working group to ensure the trouble-free introduction of genetically modified crops have been made by arable experts.

They claim the group would fulfil two roles. It would help avoid potential agronomic pitfalls, notably difficult to control volunteers. And it would provide more information about the technology to help allay public fears.

There is little doubt that genetically modified crops are safe, according to Melvyn Askew, ADASs head of alternative crops and biotechnology, as regulatory bodies ensure that is the case.

However, with several companies working on similar projects, there is potential for a string of varieties to be introduced, each resistant to a different chemical. If these were grown on one farm, it could lead to problems in controlling volunteers, he warns.

"It would be prudent if the industry got together and came forward with a broad stewardship campaign to introduce these new approaches into UK agriculture. They represent a brilliant opportunity. But we must get it right first time," said Mr Askew.

Bad publicity could hinder or even halt further progress, he warned. "Without such stewardship, we could create problems we could otherwise avoid."

The public needs more information. Although the technology appears to have been accepted in North America, it is still regarded with suspicion here, says Norfolk farmer and industry commentator David Richardson.

"This technology is vitally important for the future feeding of the world. We may not need it right now, but we certainly will in a few years time. We have to get it right."

All companies involved should ensure better education and improve the flow of information to earn the acceptance of such technology. "Without proper preparation, it will be rejected. That would be tragic. It would put progress back years and years."n