Opinion: New Brexit UK has exciting future for plant breeding

Occasionally, I find myself thinking I am in a parallel universe.

Last month, I was in a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) meeting room in Washington, listening to highly experienced plant and animal health regulators discussing the development of new regulation in the area of plant breeding.

Their science-based approach sought to allow and encourage innovation, with the aim of attracting investment and helping emerging small companies. This would bring the cost of trials down and help ensure free-moving trade.

See also: Boris Johnson vows to ‘liberate’ UK from EU’s GM crops stance

This was common sense and practical understanding being applied to the complex issue of plant breeding techniques, which is seen as being at the heart of sustainability.

These were people who knew intimately what they were talking about; they had been doing it for more than 20 years – the same 20 years that the EU has talked and talked; done nothing – but relied on new breeding techniques to supply imports.

I am one of the few farmers who has grown GM crops in a UK field situation. It took me from being a protectionist cynic to a farmer who learned the importance of all breeding techniques

The following day in this parallel universe, the secretary of state for agriculture, Sonny Perdue, at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum, challenged the audience to take such innovation out into the field. – to produce 40% more with 50% less, to meet global demand and end starvation by 2030.

Without a carbon calculator in sight, this was a meeting of sustainability targets and lowering input use that made practical sense to any farmer.

Plant breeding future

So, in our new Brexit future, there is a real feel of change and exciting possibilities in the area of plant breeding, with a prime minister and Defra secretary both welcoming the possibilities it offers.

Wouldn’t it be great if the expertise of those US regulators could be used to shape our new regulatory process?

It would immediately shift the UK to having more world-facing legislation, encouraging innovation, drawing investment, welcoming plant breeders and facilitating future free-moving trade.

I am one of the few farmers who has grown GM crops in a UK field situation. It took me from being a protectionist cynic to a farmer who learned the importance of all breeding techniques, and gave me a global understanding of the importance of finding solutions beyond the agronomic routes.

I quickly learned that the mainstream media holds the importance of a dramatic story over the information within it.

I frequently watched, astonished, that a subjective, unsubstantiated point of view was given equal weighting to an objective explanation from a scientist with 30 years’ expertise.

My frustration and anger have continued to build with the European Union.

Attending so many meetings in Brussels when nobody took responsibility, the GM issue passed around the commission, the parliament and council, with all seemingly immune to the hypocrisy of last-minute authorisations to allow imports, and so protect European food supply and price.

So, here we are in our new universe, with the hope of encouraging world-facing plant breeding from a science-based approach.

This is the single biggest opportunity to improve sustainability and reduce our carbon footprint, while at the same time delivering affordable food, against climate change and growing global demand.

My appreciation of plant science in farming began with the inspiring Dai Barling at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, who took the growing of winter cereals to new highs.

My hope is that a whole new generation now have access to inspiring technology, vital for their future in far more ways than mine back in the 1970s.


Paul Temple is a farmer and AHDB Board member.

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