WITH SO much focus and attention on Brexit, there’s another ‘B’ word that has been fretted over for decades, causing much division across Europe – and that’s ‘biotechnology’.

Meddling with the blueprints of life has been challenged by many as unnatural or unethical – the manipulation of genes which could result in harm or unintended consequences.

However, farmers and growers in the US have been embracing and relying on advancements in new breeding technologies for almost 40 years and there is great frustration felt by the US towards the UK’s resistance to embracing this technology.

Biotechnology in the US

The Scottish Farmer visited Wisconsin’s Crop Innovation Centre, meeting with Mike Peterson, the associate director on site, who explained that in the early 1980s his scientists were heavily involved in biotechnology with the invention of the electronic gene ‘gun’ taking place on his site.

Although outdated now, he explained that the principle still applied, that using the ‘gun’ scientists were able to propel gold beads containing specific genes into a plant cell which would improve properties within the plant such as promoting higher yield production, or creating herbicide tolerance.

Well-known agrochemical company, Monsanto (now part of the Bayer stable), had its first commercial product engineered on this site – the Roundup Ready soya bean plant, which revolutionised the soya industry for farmers by making their crop resistant to the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, allowing them to manage weed infestations in their fields which were causing extensive yield losses.

Controversy about genetic engineering was rife in America in the 1990s where research was still in its infancy but, according to Mr Peterson, science should be the only factor influencing important policy decisions.

“There is so much literature now and scientific publications out there which allow the facts to speak for themselves,” he stressed. “As long as it is appropriately researched and tested, then biotechnology is quite safe.”

The new craze around the globe is gene editing and often it can be mistakenly confused with the same practice of genetic engineering – where instead of adding ‘desirable genes’, it is only used to remove an identified ‘undesirable gene’ from a plant or organism to improve performance.

Almost two years ago, dairy cattle in the US had horns and farmers had to cut them off or burn them down for safety reasons. Mr Peterson explained that through gene editing, they were able to find and shut off the gene which grew the horns and from there on in, farmers didn’t have to go through any of the financial costs or animal welfare concerns associated with the removal.

It was made clear that in the US farmers are on the frontline of feeling the impact of climate change with increasingly challenging weather conditions. “Any benefit to a farmer that can temper crops to withstand droughts or floods is being welcomed with open arms,” continued Mr Peterson.

“Through advancements in biotechnology, we have been able to develop drought resistant varieties of different crops such as corn, which has allowed farmers to move the crop further west into drier areas.”

UK resistance to biotechnology

Even in the face of such research and science from the US, there remains huge scepticism in the UK and wider EU over biotechnology and Mr Peterson explained what he thought it would take to convince the public to get on board.

“The UK has always been a challenge – it takes a conservative route on anything new. Gene editing is relatively new and the UK may want more research and data to make sure, by removing a little piece of DNA, they aren’t going to cause an alteration or unexpected outcome,” he suggested.

“Maybe it will require a scientist to do something that has a broad impact on people, animals or the environment that says ‘Wow! We don’t care how you did this, but it has such an impact for greater good that it changes people’s minds’.

“Farmers are seeing the results of biotechnology in other countries and are becoming more vocal – it is time for the UK to renew their decisions over this,” he urged.

“In my 35 years of genetic testing, with 15 spent in the lab and 20 with genetically engineered products on the market – this is more than long enough to show our techniques are safe.

“We’re saving people’s lives as far as food supply goes – when will legislators latch on to this?” he queried.

His thoughts were echoed earlier in the week during a meeting with the US Department of Agriculture’s administrator, Ken Isley, who suggested that the UK was holding back progress in the sector by not embracing advancements in biotechnology.

“In a lot of ways it (the EU approach) is old-fashioned, it’s based on traditions, not based on modern science and technology. There is a view that innovation should apply everywhere but agriculture and I disagree with that.

“The US has billions of acres of crops which have been gown using bio-technology without a single food safety issue and we think the advantages far outweigh the potential concerns,” he stressed.

“New breeding technologies and practices such as gene editing increase the ability to get genetic improvements dramatically. I understand some people are resistant but there is a bigger picture and as producers, we need to be looking forward not just maintaining the status quo. Innovation is essential and we believe it should be judged based on science and data,” he insisted.

Hemp production

In 2018, farmers were able to grow industrial hemp in the state of Wisconsin for the first-time and it looks increasingly likely to be an alternative high value market for farmers to explore in the coming years with the benefits of CBD (cannabidiol) oil becoming widely publicised and global demand growing.

Scientists at Wisconsin are growing hemp on-site and running tests to monitor THC levels – the psychoactive compound – in the crop and are looking at how they can reduce this whilst increasing its CBD levels known for their health properties.

“There were 2000 farmers in Wisconsin who applied for rights to grow hemp this year and this is a response to farmers competing against low prices for soya beans and dairy,” continued Mr Peterson.

“We are currently growing different varieties of hemp to see how different compounds differ to get our feet wet in growing the stuff.”

Wisconsin arable farmer, Randy Hughes – who runs a mostly organic farm planting soya beans and corn – has just joined the craze for planting hemp this year and told The SF what financial return he looks to gain. “In my first-year of planting hemp, I will make as much money from five acres of the planted crop as I will from 1000 acres of soya beans,” he said.

If scientists can find a way to genetically modify the hemp crop to increase CBD production whilst reducing levels of TCH, then this could open the doors to an exciting, financially rewarding avenue for farmers to explore. Many in the US reckon that this could mitigate the losses endured by falling prices in others areas of agriculture.

Biotechnology is changing the pace and direction of modern agriculture and in a post-Brexit Britain, decisions over its future use in the UK will become an increasingly debated topic. The science from the US shows that it should, at least, be researched.