GM crop scientists win $10m grant
Gates Foundation gives money to develop GM cereal crops
A team of British plant scientists has won a $10m (£6.4m) grant from the Gates Foundation to develop GM cereal crops. The Gates Foundation has a record of backing GM research and supporting intensive farming techniques in the Global South, including massive support for nitrogen fertilisers.
It is one of the largest single investments into GM in the UK and will be used to cultivate corn, wheat and rice that need little or no fertiliser.
The work at the John Innes Centre in Norwich is hoped to benefit African farmers who cannot afford fertiliser.
The John Innes Centre is trying to engineer cereal crops that could get nitrogen from the air - as peas and beans do - rather than needing chemical ammonia spread on fields.
If successful, it is hoped the project could revolutionise agriculture and, in particular, help struggling maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa - something the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is keen to do.
The announcement was described by GM Freeze as a waste of money that should have been used on more important and productive research.
GM Freeze says the answer lies in long crop rotations using crops that build soil fertility naturally by fixing nitrogen. These include beans, peas, clovers, vetches and lucerne, which are also useful as food or animal feed. Other farming techniques that work without GM include building soil organic matter and improving soil structure and ability to hold water. Undersowing cereal crops with a nitrogen fixing crop, such as clover, was once recommended to farmers, but the advent of cheap artificial fertilisers has seen the practice die out in intensive arable production.
Pete Riley, campaign director of the group GM Freeze, said
“This project is a waste of money that should have been used on more important and urgent research.
“Depleted soils are a big problem in many places. In Europe and North America we also need to rebuild our soil structure and fertility after 60 years of nutrient draining, intensive production. This means longer rotations and greater crop diversity, including existing nitrogen fixing crops. GM technology moves in the wrong direction and assumes we can find ways to force more food out of exhausted soils rather than working with the soil for productivity now and into the future.
“We also need to ensure that nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients are not wasted by poor handling of organic waste, badly designed sewage treatment processes and abandonment of sound farming practices. GM nitrogen fixing crops have not shown much progress to date, and waiting decades longer for institutions like The Gates Foundation and John Innes Centre to play around with the genetics, and maybe fail, is not a good use of money when we know where the answers lie.
“If the Gates Foundation wants ideas on how to spend US$10 million more productively, soil scientists from around the world will not be short of ideas.”