Sometimes it is time to step back from a problem and look at the wider picture. Prof Sir David Baulcombe, Head of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge and the Regius Professor of Botany, is one of the inspirational speakers at REAP and he suggests that there is a ‘third way’ when considering the future of crop protection.
Professor Baulcombe has a strong interest in the use of plant biotechnology for crop improvement, especially in addressing the problems of developing countries and believes this is not incompatible with traditional methods of cultivation and concerns over the environment.
Much of Professor Baulcombe’s current research is directed at increasing disease resistance and this builds on earlier discoveries, made in his Norwich laboratory, of a novel type of regulatory RNA (RNA plays an important role in controlling cell processes such as the production of proteins).
This siRNA or RNA silencing he later discovered has an important role in protecting plants and animals against viral attack. This was a major breakthrough and David has received many accolades and awards for his research on RNA silencing, including a Knighthood in 2009 for services to plant science.
More recently he discovered a plant ‘antibody’ a protein NB-LRR which can switch on the plant’s defence mechanisms when a pathogen is detected. However he doesn’t suggest that this technology should be used in isolation and comments:
“There is a third way which would also use practise from organic and traditional agriculture. A good example involves cultivation of maize together with a legume and a forage grass. This companion cropping system has allowed yield to be doubled in East Africa without increased fertilizer input, without using pesticides to get stem borer control and without using herbicides to control Striga – a parasitic weed..
“This ingenious strategy must surely inspire the development and refinement of other methods of crop management.
“Used alone they will allow good yields and pest management but without the use of fossil fuel inputs. Used in combination with biotechnology they could allow yields in developed country agriculture to be maintained at the level of current industrialised agriculture but with a lower environmental footprint.
“In less developed countries, especially those in Africa where average yields are very low, there could be a massive increase.”
He comments that we have had crop breeding revolution in the past that was even more radical than current techniques: “The breeding of bread wheat, for example, involved creating a plant with three new sets of 30000 genes in which the potential for highly complex interactions is very real.” By contrast biotechnologist today are suggesting one or a few novel genes are introduced into the existing set of 30000.
Professor Baulcombe will be in discussion with farmers and technologists at the Agri-Tech East REAP conference on 9th November.
(For more information about the ‘third way’ see Reconciling Organic Crops and Biotechnology. David Baulcombe)