How GM could help region; A DECISION by the European Commission that individual member states can make up their own minds about whether they want to grow Genetically Modified may benefit the North East's scientific community, as KAREN DENT reports.
FIELDS of GM crops may not be growing in the North East but research and development behind some of the science looking at ways to feed the increasing global population is flourishing here.
Newcastle University has a reputation as a centre for innovating technologies which could one day transform the way the world is fed.
This issue of food security is one of the key arguments in favour of using GM foods, according to Professor Andrew Cockburn, a toxicologist who runs Toxico-Logical Consulting and has been a visiting professor at Newcastle University for the past decade.
He said: "It's relevant to everyone in the country; it is of global importance.
"Taking politics out of it, if people want to keep biodiversity like rainforests and the tigers in India, we can't extend the agricultural footprint more than we do today or we will damage biodiversity. "More people now live in cities than the countryside. People in cities eat more meat than in the countryside and that pushes agricultural demand.
"The evidence is we are living on 1.5 globes - using the resources of 1.5 planets. But there is no planet B."
He says scientists must find ways to develop agriculture to feed a world population which is estimated to increase from six billion in 2000 to around nine or 10 billion by 2050, while also thinking about the impact of climate change.
Professor Cockburn works with students and staff at Newcastle and is keen to see the university's research turned into technology which is actively used to benefit the region.
"I would like more of the brilliant work coming out of Newcastle to be exploited for Newcastle," he said.
"The importance of chemical engineering, biological engineering and genetic engineering is there for Newcastle and also the rest of the scientific community. "Newcastle has this wonderful innovative history. This is just another form of engineering."
Some of the key research at Newcastle University is looking at the potential of GM crops to protect themselves against insect attack without the need for chemical pesticides.
Professor Cockburn said: "A single gene put into a plant can make it resistant to something, for example the European corn borer.
"Rather than to put chemicals on that field, if you can express a protein that is harmless to man but makes the insect fall off and die, isn't that the way forward? Then we can stop squirting all these chemicals around and much less pesticide is used as a result.
"Newcastle is so important because it is a seat of innovation. It's got a first class biotechnology department and historically, it is strong on agricultural sciences.
"Prof Gatehouse has grants to look into this type of thing. It provides ways for the future of blue sky research."
Professor Angharad Gatehouse, pictured below, has a group at Newcastle involved in looking at the environmental impact of GM crops, and specifically insect resistant crops.
She said: "GM technology has not been fully embraced in much of Europe so we are looking at other status for producing insect resistant crops. The whole focus of my group is plant-insect interaction.
"Really in terms of GM crops, we are looking at their environmental safety.
This is being done in contained growth rooms - we have never done any field work like they do in Leeds with potatoes."
The main thrust of the work is how GM crops affect beneficial insects, such as ladybirds which feed on aphids that attack crops. Pesticides used on conventional crops are indiscriminate because they kill both the beneficial insects as well as the pests.
"The vast majority of studies globally show GM crops have little impact [on beneficial insects]," she said.
"We've just had a BBSRC [Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council] programme on wheat -to look at the indigenous resistance in wheat to aphids, co-ordinated by Durham University and FERA [Food and Environmental Research Agency].
"I've always had a passion for food security. I've been working on this research for about 25 years."
However, scientists at Newcastle University are not uniform in their support for GM technology.
Carlo Leifert, who has been a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle for 10 years, believes GM is not necessary to produce additional food to feed the growing global population.
"They don't produce higher yields. In my opinion they are complete waste of public money," said Professor Leifert.
"They make sense for seed companies because they can continue to get money from them because they think farmers will use their seed.
"But from an agronomic point of view, there are new technologies which respond to what farmers need and what society needs with higher yields and better growth."
However, he believes that Britain will be one of the countries to use the EU's decision to push ahead with growing GM crops.
"The EC has basically come to a realisation that they can't impose GM crop growing-imports on all member states," said Professor Leifert.
"They are hoping that individual countries allow it and other countries will disallow it.
"I think the UK is one of the prime candidates where Government pressure will make us grow it. The UK is one of the centres of biotech research.
"The majority of academics - though not me - are very much pushing for it. The transfer of genes is just risky. If you don't need something and there are inherent risks, then you need to reject these technologies."
Over all, though, attitudes opposing GM technology do appear to be softening.
Professor Cockburn said: "Eurobarometer [research] says that generally people are less concerned about GM overall than 10 years ago.
"If people believe in the scientific methodology, the evidence is that people shouldn't be concerned."
He also pointed out the importance of GM crops to feeding the UK's livestock, such as GM soya and maize, grown in the US and South America.
"This [EU change] is only regarding cultivation."
SUPER SPUD Carlo Leifert and the potato grown by Newcastle University REDUCING CHEMICALS Crops could benefit from pest resistance
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|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Jul 28, 2010|
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