Seabrook On ... Feeding the rapidly growing population

We are told that science and technology are the best bet to feed the world's rapidly increasing population. Two conferences in one day coupled with the autumn vegetable trials in Lincolnshire last month gave credence to this wager.

At the HTA Bedding Plant Conference and tour of Europe's largest agricultural research centre, Syngenta's Jealott's Hill, it was stated that "40 per cent of world food would be lost without pesticides and weedkillers". A thousand scientists there look at 100,000 new chemical formulations a year, which, after 10 years and an investment of $250m, may find one or two that prove environmentally safe and commercially viable.

Professor Wyn Grant, giving the Amos Memorial Lecture at East Malling Research (EMR), told his audience: "Consumers want secure supply, safe, tasty good food at cheap prices. Is food too cheap?" he asked. "So we waste it." The way things are going, it will not be too cheap for much longer.

At EMR, our last major independent research station, I was told that they have recently received two Government grants to finance research projects. Here's hoping our Government is, at the last gasp, waking up to the need for more, not less, horticultural research.

Bayer will be selling a strain of good soil-borne bacteria, found by an American biotech company, from next January. It has a trial in Lincolnshire on cabbage where the more dense cover of foliage indicates its immediate effect.

The spray lasts for 14 days, stimulates root growth, improves the plants' immune systems and attacks the cell walls of fungus diseases - all this from a naturally occurring organism. It is the result of scientific research such as this that has seen fivefold crop yield increases in my lifetime.

At the Bedding Plant Conference, we heard Stockbridge House has done remarkable work on impatiens downy mildew disease, in part learning from earlier work on lettuce downy mildew. According to American reports, there is the chance that systemic fungicides mixed into composts will give four-to-five months' control of this devastating disease.

There is no doubt that we need to use the latest technology to back scientific research to both feed the world and protect the plants we grow.

Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster.


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