My article for the Genetic Literacy Project:
The Government was right to make provision for a temporary and limited derogation for the use of the neonicotinoid seed treatment Cruiser SB on sugar beet for the 2021 season, although the colder conditions of recent months mean it will not be required this year.
The impact of virus yellows on last year’s beet crop for many growers was absolutely devastating and explains why the UK, after resisting in previous years, followed 13 EU member states in granting this emergency derogation. But I cannot help calling out the sheer hypocrisy of those in the organic and anti-pesticide lobby who portrayed the Government’s decision as heralding the extinction of all bees and other pollinating insects.
Firstly, sugar beet is not a crop greatly frequented by pollinators and, secondly, the derogation granted was subject to highly restrictive conditions precisely to minimize adverse impacts on biodiversity.
What these campaigners conveniently overlook is that a similar emergency derogation was granted by Defra earlier in 2020 to spray copper hydroxide as a blight fungicide on organically grown potatoes. This was expressly advised against by the Expert Committee on Pesticides due to environmental concerns over acute aquatic toxicity.
My point here is not simply to take a cheap shot at the organic lobby — although I do think they have a case to answer when promoting their approach as ‘pesticide-free’, which manifestly it is not – but rather to emphasize that unless we are prepared to let our food crops rot in the fields, or to become vectors for harmful and potentially lethal mycotoxins spread by insect pests and crop infections, then we must enable technologies which control those pests and diseases.
The same risk of infestation applies whether crops are grown conventionally or organically. Following a public consultation earlier this year, the Government is currently considering whether to allow innovative breeding technologies such as gene editing, which offer faster development of crop varieties with better and more durable pest and disease resistance.
The development of virus yellows resistance in sugar beet is a case in point. Research funded by Innovate UK points to promising genetic sources of virus yellows resistance in sugar beet.
I understand that integrating these novel sources of virus yellows resistance into elite beet varieties using conventional breeding could take 10-12 years, but with gene editing it could take as little as two to three years. The need for pesticides would be much reduced, and similar approaches could be envisaged for genetic control of late blight in potatoes.
The outcome of the consultation will determine whether consumers can enjoy the benefit of these truly game-changing technologies with the potential to cut costs, cut pesticide use, improve food security and enhance biodiversity, while underlining the post-Brexit opportunity to resume our role as a world leader in innovation. I suspect many consumers would be concerned to learn that certified organic potatoes on sale in our supermarkets had been treated with a banned fungicide classed as toxic to aquatic life.
Like others before me I would therefore urge the organic lobby to keep an open mind on the potential of these precision breeding techniques to enable more environmentally friendly farming and food production in future.
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