Plant science in the UK is under threat and researchers are being driven abroad, says Mark Tester, who is off to more fertile ground
Oversimplification in the debate on genetically modified crops has caused unnecessary and misleading polarisation. Inevitably, opposition has followed in rich western countries where food is already cheap and abundant and the current generation of GM crops brings few, if any, benefits and could create some hazards.
But what has been lost in the rush to praise or condemn GM is that it is not the technology that is the problem, but how it is used. Radiotherapy has saved millions of lives, but nuclear waste disposal presents untold future costs. For GM crops, it is not the process of generation that should be the issue, rather the question of which genes are being put into the crops. Just as with conventional breeding, some changes will be good, some will be bad.
Despite the problems, the agricultural biotech industry continued for several years to increase its investment in the UK, most notably with the privatisation of Cambridge's Plant Breeding Institute, a major player in the green revolution. The more immediately agriculturally relevant research was increasingly moving into the hands of the private sector, and the government-funded institutes moved towards more glamorous basic research.
The important discovery and development of new germplasm to be fed into plant-breeding programmes was, it seemed, to be carried out by industry.
This was fine while there was an industry to do it. Alas, industry has now fled. Monsanto's announcement last week of the closure of its Cambridge operations is close to being the final blow. The UK is now left with excellent plant-science research, but only at a fundamental academic level.
The universities and the large research institutes now compete in similar research areas for a relatively modest budget (compared with that enjoyed by US and Chinese colleagues). The work to transfer basic research advances into new crop varieties and new management techniques is all but absent in the UK.
In my view, UK plant science is now in an unsustainable and risky position, and so too is UK agriculture. This situation has developed very recently and very rapidly, caused primarily by the anti-GM atmosphere in the UK.
We need to ask whether the research institutes should be revisiting more directly their original remits. Ministers should ask whether supporting both university and research institutes undertaking fundamental research is the best use of taxpayers' money. And, if the institutes are not to do it, where is the germplasm development that is vital for underpinning the long-term sustainability of UK agriculture to be done? Rewards concomitant with those handed out for glamorous research need to be provided for work that contributes more immediately to improving agriculture.
Directly related to these structural problems is the issue of training future generations of plant scientists. Students are aware of the fragility of plant sciences, even if only intuitively, and they are clearly deterred from risking a career in this field. The lack of an agricultural industry reduces employment and funding opportunities. This is, at best, discouraging for students, but it is also distinctly unhealthy for academia - and downright dangerous for the future of UK agriculture.
In Australia, the challenges to plant sciences are being recognised.
Australians have realised that radical approaches need to be adopted to broaden the genetic base of their crops. Having assessed the acute challenges facing their agriculture, Australians have recognised the need for a new centre to focus on the discovery of mechanisms of salt and drought tolerance of crops.
I am delighted to be joining the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, whose output will broaden the genetic base of crops, feeding novel resources to plant breeders. The centre will ensure that the flow of knowledge from pure academic researcher to breeder is maintained, providing a long-term sustainable structure for plant science as a whole and agriculture in particular. The UK needs to take note.
Mark Tester is senior lecturer in plant science at Cambridge University.
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