Growers should embrace new genetic technologies to cope with the huge challenges facing the industry, delegates at a conference on sustainable farming held in London last week were told.
"Genetics is undergoing a revolution - new developments are taking it to the next level," said University of Cambridge regius professor of botany Sir David Baulcombe at the LEAF President's Event.
"You can now sequence the DNA of a plant or a person in a day. Getting the sequence of many varieties of potato, for example, will become trivial and routine. We will be able to link the appearance and other features of a plant with its DNA. So rather than select for a trait, you will select the DNA that gives you that trait - simply and cheaply."
This is an advance from "first-generation GM"
- inserting alien DNA from bacteria or viruses into organisms - which "still hasn't been fully exploited", he said.
But a third generation is already in the offing, allowing the creation of novel plants for food or fuel that could hypothetically include a more efficient mechanism for photosynthesis or nitrogen fixation, he explained.
But he cautioned: "Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have been overapplied, especially in the USA, which selects for pesticide-resistant weeds."
The concern of gene flow between organisms is "a manageable issue", Baulcombe said, but he added that intellectual property rules discourage innovation by smaller companies.
"Many traits are not associated with big returns and horticulture and agriculture is a very diverse industry. Public-good traits could be developed by the public sector, to be picked up by everyone," he said.
As for the market, "people say the problem is consumer acceptance when they really mean retailer acceptance," he added. "The consumer does not have a choice - retailers should offer them that."
"We have strong ties to the organic movement and I urge a more cautious approach to GM - it all needs thorough testing. There are a lot of other things such as soil management that we should be doing first." - Andrew Burgess, director of agriculture, Produce World