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Floods cause GM crop surge fears

By JaquiLethaby  |  Posted: January 06, 2013

  • Somerset farmers lose crops to floodwaters

  • Somerset farmers lose crops to floodwaters

  • Somerset farmers lose crops to floodwaters

  • Half the country’s farmers are pessimistic about the future after a terrible season that has seen crops ruined and plans for this year’s planting torn up

  • Philip Vaux of New Rydon Farm among his ruined crop of Lady Rosetta potatoes

  • The flooded Langport to Muchelney road, pictured during the November floods

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Poor weather throughout 2012 could see Somerset farmers upping pressure to legalise genetically-modified crops to increase their chances of a good yield.

Last year began with a serious three-month drought, resulting in most of the UK being issued with a hosepipe ban in March. As soon as the bans were in place, the rain began to fall and did so with enthusiasm for the rest of the year.

The Environment Agency issued a record 1,000 flood warnings nationally during the course of the year.

It is estimated that the cost to the food production market has been more than £600 million from crops such as potatoes and wheat affected by flooding, and bees have not been able to leave the shelter of their hives resulting in a 72 per cent drop in commercial honey production. Somerset's apple harvest was, for many growers, the worst in 15 years.

The crop for next year for many arable farmers is also under threat as the flooded land meant they were unable to sow cereal crops in the autumn and are now looking to source seed for crops that can be sown in the spring, which is likely to be in short supply and expensive.

Livestock farmers also struggled last summer to grow and harvest quality forage crops to feed cattle during the winter and those that were harvested were generally of limited quality.

People in Somerset are now concerned about ongoing food shortages and rising prices as the climate fluctuates from flood to drought and from heat wave to big freeze. 

Some scientists suggest genetically engineering existing varieties could help improve yields during these severe weather changes by developing new strains better suited to the adverse growing conditions.

The case for introducing GM crops has previously failed to convince a sceptical British public, wary of introducing "Frankenstein organisms" into the food chain, and no GM crops have been grown commercially in Britain. 

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said at a farming conference on Thursday: "We should not be afraid of making the case to the public about the potential benefits of GM beyond the food chain - for example, reducing the use of pesticides and inputs such as diesel.

"I believe that GM offers great opportunities but I also recognise that we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation."

Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union, showed his support for GM food saying: "The majority of our members are aware of the real risk of becoming globally uncompetitive because of avoiding using GM."

He pointed out that wet weather creates perfect conditions for blight, a disease that affected a large proportion of the recent tomato and potato crops. This wastage would not have occurred, he said, if the farmers had been using GM blight-resistant varieties.

Critics argue that without proper controls, GM crops could release scientifically altered genes into the wider environment through cross-pollination and risk creating "superweeds" resistant to pesticides.

Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, said: "Our weather is becoming more unpredictable and extreme so farming needs crops with general resilience. 

"You can't know when you plant whether the crop will face too much rain or severe drought, GM delivers specific, narrow traits. Organic and agro-ecological systems deliver generally more resilient farming."

Clare Oxborrow, of Friends of the Earth, said: "GM crops are not the solution to the food challenges we face.

"They are largely being developed to benefit multinational biotech firms that are gaining control of the seed industry, not to feed poor people in developing countries."

The decision on whether or not to introduce genetically-modified foods to families in Somerset could already be a moot point as it seems they are already with us:

An accidental GM contamination occurred in Somerset in 2007 as a result of seeds sown on a farm which had been tainted with genes from a GM plant and a number of imported GM commodities such as soya are used in this country for animal feed.

RELATED CONTENT:

APRIL STORM AND FLOOD DAMAGE IN SOMERSET

JULY FLOODS & CROPS DAMAGE IN SOMERSET

SEPTEMBER FLOODS HIT SOMERSET

NOVEMBER FLOODS CAUSE CHAOS IN SOMERSET 

If you want to show your support for West Country farmers who have lost some or all of their income this year and Somerset residents who have had their homes and vehicles destroyed as a result of flooding, you can join this Facebook Group

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  • dusha  |  January 09 2013, 12:21AM

    There's no point in waiting for GM to do something it can't do very well, ie engineer complex traits like tolerance to certain weather conditions, when non-GM breeding is better suited to these tasks. See http://tinyurl.com/bh5bb6m It takes up to 15 years to GM a new crop; just 7-8 years for non-GM breeding assisted by marker assisted selection. Plus non-GM much cheaper. What's not to like? Evidently, however, soil building via organic matter is a far better way of coping with climate change. Growers using deep organic mulches often don't have to irrigate even in drought.

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  • dusha  |  January 09 2013, 12:19AM

    There's no point in waiting for GM to do something it can't do very well, ie engineer complex traits like tolerance to certain weather conditions, when non-GM breeding is better suited to these tasks. See http://tinyurl.com/bh5bb6m It takes up to 15 years to GM a new crop; just 7-8 years for non-GM breeding assisted by marker assisted selection. Plus non-GM much cheaper. What's not to like?

    |   1
  • Tattva  |  January 08 2013, 12:20PM

    Dusha - I wonder if the word your comment is missing from point number 1, is 'yet'? As I understood it, The NFU were calling for stepping-up research into genetically engineering new varieties which might have a better chance of withstand our changing climate? It may only be a matter of time before flood-tolerant GM crops are devised. Thank you for that interesting link. Although, as you say, this rice (which we don't grow in Britain so it's not particularly relevant), is not the result of GM so perhaps wouldn't be considered pertinent to the article above?

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  • dusha  |  January 07 2013, 7:46PM

    This article has had a logic bypass. How exactly are GM crops supposed to help farmers cope with floods when 1) there are no available flood-tolerant GM crops 2) there are flood-tolerant non-GM crops (all rice unfortunately, which we don't grow in the UK) 3) flood tolerance is a complex genetic trait which can't be GM'd into crops. The new flood-tolerant rice was bred using conventional breeding and marker assisted selection, a safe biotechnology that does not involve gene splicing. For more see http://tinyurl.com/b7op8pf

    |   -1

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