The Importance of Conventional Plant Breeding. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC (April 6, 2009)

Most of the articles which I have written here about the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Study-Week in May 2009, have been critical of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  This is why I am delighted in this article to called attention to the many breakthroughs which are happening in conventional breeding.  Such work needs the active support of Christians and especially Church leaders, because government support for independent conventional plant-breeding is drying up.  The data I am using has come from the debate in the Scottish Parliament on April 1, 2009


This is an account of a debate on supporting conventional plant breeding which was put down in the name of Rob Gibson. (SNP from the Highlands and Islands).  Apart from being a member of the Scottish Parliament, he is also a member of the Soil Association and the Scottish Crofting Foundation.


The motion debated was as follows: “That Parliament welcomes a growing body of evidence that Scottish  farmers, crofters and growers can benefit from the results of successful experiments to produce home-grown food for both animals and humans that does not rely on transgenic modification of plant material; also welcomes the recent work of the Scottish Crop Research Institute in producing highly nutritious purple-pigmented potatoes; applauds the Sávári Research Trust based at Bangor University that confirms that blight-resistant Sárpo potatoes which were successfully trialed in the Black Isle are suitable for Scottish conditions; recalls that the Scottish Agricultural College has backed an international research collaboration on the Green Pig project, which plans to use home-grown legume varieties to reduce reliance on imported and expensive soya bean meal and so reduce costs for Scottish livestock producers; notes the scientific analysis of Dr. John Fagan of Global ID Group which shows that, although non-GM pig feed costs a bit more than GM feed because of a feed-to-meat conversion efficiency, when using non-GM feed the actual cost per animal is lower, and therefore believes that a conventional plant breeding policy is an essential basis for the Scottish national food and drink policy, which itself dovetails with the conclusion of the International  Assessment of Agricultural Sciences and Technology for Development that small-scale farming and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current world food crisis.”  [1]


Rob Gibson began his contribution by referring to the study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. Although this did not rule out genetically modified crops in the future, it rightly concluded that, if the multimillion pound investment by corporations in transgenic research had been applied to improving conventional methods of local food production and distribution, the current world food crisis would have been more successfully addressed.


Some of the multinational corporations have claimed that recombinant gene technology would be needed to create blight-resistant potatoes. Gibson pointed that the new Sárpo potato varieties which were bred in Hungary have a high resistance to late-blight disease. This and other new varieties, such as Axona, are able to resist viruses, smother weeds and resist drought.  Another practical benefit is that they can be stored without refrigeration.


Rob Gibson argues that Scotland has the research capacity to support the local food and export sector without relying on GM crops. However this sectors needs serious support from the government.



John Scott (Ary Conservative), who is also a farmer, congratulated Rob Gibson in initiating this debate. He praised the Sávári Research Trust for its important work on a blight-resistant potato. According to him the elephant in the room was genetically modified food.  He called for a debate on this “based on science and not emotion.”


Bill Wilson (SNP West of Scotland) addressed this issue directly. He said that “the evidence against transgenic crops is so comprehensive that it was difficult to decide what to include and exclude.” He pointed to the conclusions of the IAASTD study. “Another major reason why GM will not eliminate hunger is that it does not increase yields. Several researchers have reported that Roundup Ready soya, the leading GM crop has, a lower yield than its non-GM equivalent. …..Maize that is modified by the addition of bacterial genes to make it pest resistant has been found to take longer to reach maturity and has up to 12% lower yield and higher moisture levels than its non-GM equivalent.  If GM crops benefit anyone it is the companies that make them.” He concluded by saying that GM technology is redundant and a dead end.



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