Friday, 30 March 2012

Rothamsted Research Facility

Yesterday I attended a fantastic site in Hertfordshire with our regional (West Midlands) Combinable Crops Board for the National Farmers Union (NFU)  The site is all over the newspapers at the moment due to the GM wheat trials that are being run there.  The site is of course Rothamsted where they have been at the forefront of Agricultural Research since 1843 when experiments were first conducted there by Sir John Bennet Lawes.  These experiments are still running today, known as the Broadbalk Experiment, and is testament to the incredible foresight of these pioneers of science and those that have followed.  Standing on the site with other farmers it is very easy to imagine farmers 100 years ago (and more) on the same spot thinking the same thoughts and try to solve, I suspect, very similar problems.  The trial site has some plots that have received no nitrogen for 160 years, other sites have received farm yard manure every year (hope they're not in a NVZ) and many different management regimes travel across the plots with different herbicide or pesticide applications on to see what impact they have.  The water draining from the plots can also be collected and monitored.
The trees in the distance are also part of the experiment, to see what would happen if farmers just abandoned the fields, how long it would revert to woodland and what species would thrive?
The plot above shows very clearly the effect of herbicide taking out many of the weeds that are taking nutrients and water away from the wheat crop.  Each year samples of straw, soil and grain are collected and stored for future examination. In total over 250,000 samples have been collected.  The soil could tell us when the Chernobyl accident occurred with increased radiation, with a time lag of 6 months.  It really is an incredible place.  It is only fitting then that the scientists there should be trialling the first GM trials in the country for nearly a decade.  The team led by Prof. John Picket CBE DSc FRS is trialing wheat that has been modified to give off warning pheromones (from a mint plant) that when released repel aphids and attract their natural enemies the parasitic wasps, who then lay eggs in the aphids killing the few stragglers off.   We as a country in line with the rest of the EU are lagging behind in the experimental research into these crops.  The EU is happy to import products that contain GMO's but do not want us to grow them here.  If there is a risk then why are we happy to export that risk to other countries?  It does seem a bit crazy to me. Food prices have increased by over 30% in the last 4 years and will only increase as the world population increases and weather effects limit the supply of food to the worlds population.  Only when the price of food; or the lack of it, puts pressure on the system will the EU then allow farmers to use this technology but by then it might be too late, with much of the research being conducted elsewhere in the world.

We were very lucky to actually be allowed onto the trial site, although the crop of Cadenza Spring Wheat, had only just been planted and therefore there was nothing for us to see.  The fencing, security and camera's have cost over £120,000 in a bid to try and keep any protesters out.  I just hope that the team are able to get through the trial so that we can actually learn about these techniques and see what advantage they offer us in a bid to feed a lot of very hungry mouths in the future.