Brussels, 17 Mar 2004
Genetic engineering might help reduce the impact of global warming on indigenous species of plants and trees, said scientists at a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) meeting in London.
At the meeting, which took place on 16 March, scientists also claimed that the benefits to horticulture from genetic modification (GM) are so clear that gardeners might achieve what the biotech industry has so far failed to do - make GM acceptable.
'We should not let the furore over currently available GM products, which are comparatively primitive technology, close our minds to environmentally acceptable benefits that a more sophisticated GM technology might deliver,' said Dr Phil Gates, a plant biologist at Durham University.
Simon Thornton-Wood, head of science at the RHS, agreed, stating: 'There are solutions to all sorts of problems like climate change, and all the pest and disease problems that we have today [...] and the answer might in large part be GM.'
It remains to be seen, however, whether public opinion will allow scientists to carry out these investigations.
Scientists predict that average temperatures could increase by two degrees centigrade over the next 50 years. This would push temperate growing zones progressively more north. Mr Thornton-Wood explained that although those two degrees may seem like a minor change, they could have a significant impact on growing conditions for all types of plants. Indeed, in parts of Europe, some fruits and plants require frost early in the season in order to grow properly.
Scientists agree that these changes, namely higher temperatures and less rainfall, are unstoppable, and it is therefore time to look at what can be done to deal with the situation. In terms of horticulture, American biotech companies have already produced GM lawns that grow slower than conventional grasses and are tolerant to droughts. And GM technology could also help hayfever sufferers, argued Dr Gates, by producing pollen-free plants and trees.
Other benefits include frost-tolerant herbaceous plants, and plants that are able to absorb nutrients more efficiently and so require less fertiliser. 'I suspect that gardeners will be more responsive to this kind of technology than other consumers,' said Dr Gates. 'Gardeners have a long history of innovation and novelty. They have no scruples about crossing species boundaries or creating mutants. Many roses out there are hybrids of up to six species.'
New organic technology could also make gardeners less dependent on chemical pesticides and fertilisers. 'This is more than a debate about food safety. This is a debate that could touch on some quite unexpected aspects of our lives,' concluded Mr Thornton-Wood.
For more information on the RHS report on the impact on climate change on gardens in the UK, please visit
: http://www.rhs.org.uk/research/climate_c hange/climate_reports.asp