Picture the scene. I’m standing in an English pub, holding a pint of beer, along with fellow farmers after another ‘what could have been’ and ‘if only’ harvest has finished—some years shriveled grains due to drought, others poor quality from sprouted grains due to rain before we could combine. A consolation beer that should be celebration!
I don’t think it has to be like this. I want to say yes, the weather was bad, but, our crops literally stood up to it. I believe science can help us preserve our crops quality and yield. We’ll never beat the elements, but we can work more with them, by farming smarter.
I’ve been a farmer my entire career. I farm in the south of England growing wheat, barley, grass, peas, beans and oil seeds along with some livestock—a traditional farm. Unfortunately, lots of people view agriculture based on a romantic, historical image of farming from a by-gone era rather than as the proper career it is and, ever more so in future, one of the most crucial jobs on the planet.
Today, farming is a solutions and evidence-based career, requiring a level of understanding from agronomics to economics, science to sustainability. We rely on advanced technology, for example GPS systems, that allow precision measurements and then applications of the crop-protection and plant nutrition products.
Improving crop productivity by improving the plants genetics to withstand bad weather and increase resistance to disease and pests has been farming’s goal for hundreds of years. With Gene Editing [GE], crop researchers work with genes already in a plant to make them more resilient. It is the conventional breeding that farmers and nature have done for generations, but done faster and more accurately using scientific precision rather than randomness of nature. As a farmer, I’ve grown up accepting the weather risk that many other industries do not have—my factory does not have a roof!
GE technology, as a tool, would help farmers like me manage and mitigate the risk of growing crops in rain-fed [no roof!] agriculture, enhancing productivity and sustainability of food production and ever more importantly, the environment. These GE tools are not new, they’re based on the same technologies that have given us COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines are injected and yet illogically we worry about eating the food? The Times newspaper recently asked in a headline: “You’ve had the GM jab, so what’s wrong with GM food?”
According to UK government statistics, today over 37 million people have received a first COVID-19 vaccine, and over 21 million have had a second jab. That’s great news for our country as we move away from a lethal pandemic. We now have a chance to build on this success and solve other human and global issues, by embracing this safe science. As we confront the challenges of food security and climate change, the UK has a remarkable opportunity to legislate smart policies at home and lead by example, show the world and export the ‘safe science’. Potentially huge global gains if we’re allowed access to the same gene-editing tools that have given us life-saving vaccines.
EU regulators have blocked UK from past technologies e.g. GMOs, which became controversial as emotions overpowered evidence. Farmers throughout North and South America, India and elsewhere, can plant and harvest crops that we’re denied. Even though GE crops are fundamentally different from GMOs, the EU has, up to now, treated them as the same. The European Commission believe because they both involve genetics, they should keep on applying a one-size-fits-all rule to tools that could help farmers, consumers, and the environment.
The governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Japan, and the United States make a distinction between GMOs and GE crops and treat them separately. The UK now has an opportunity to join them. Brexit may free us from following the precautionary principle so adhered to by the EU. Earlier this year, our Department of Environmental, Food, and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] released a consultation on GE crops, which encouragingly was positive to GE in its outlook.
We need access to this essential new science and evidence-based technology, after due diligence and with appropriate regulation, as soon as possible.
GE crops have major potential benefits. They would have traits to resist diseases such as yellow rust. They could perform better in droughts and in heavy rainfall seasons. They should require fewer inputs and resources, such as fertilizer and fossil fuels. With access, our farming would become more efficient and produce fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change, helping farmers like me grow more safe nutritious food on less land and contributing even more to environmental sustainability.
Scientists and researchers based in UK are world class, successfully using gene-editing technology to give us vaccines that will save lives and end lockdowns. This is an amazing accomplishment. As we beat the pandemic, allow farming to aspire now to new achievements. I’m ready to get started on my farm and looking forward to that pint of beer in the pub with fellow farmers celebrating another successfully gathered harvest. Even though the weather was against us, the science was with us!
Nominations are being accepted for candidates to the 2021 Global Farmer Network Roundtable and Leadership Training. Tentatively scheduled to be held during summer 2021, the next Roundtable will include a virtual component prior to meeting in person in Brussels, Belgium. The face-to-face event date is dependent on when travel is allowed and people feel safe. Learn more about the event here.
To learn more about how the GFN empowers farmers to share ideas through a strong voice, click here.
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