There are many global challenges where crops have an important role to play – the prediction that the world’s population is predicted to increase from 7 billion now to 9 billion in 2050 (PDF), demand for meat will increase by 40% by 2025 and the fact that 30% of all crops in Africa (PDF) are destroyed by insects and weeds are just a few of the issues facing us globally.
One of the ways of tackling some of these challenges is to enhance the efficiency of the development of new traits in plants to increase yields and their resistance to disease, drought and pests and last week we held an extremely valuable workshop on new crop breeding technologies at the Royal Society. The workshop brought together relevant scientific experts to discuss current and prospective developments in these new technologies, their application in crop breeding, both alone and in combination, with established techniques and the implications for risk assessment and regulation. The output will be a position paper which will be used to stimulate debate and discussion both in the UK and Europe on this important topic.
The meeting was opened by Professor Sir Mark Walport who made the point that communities that were able to articulate a clear vision were more likely to be successful and I would agree that there is real need now for plant communities across Europe to agree on some key principles and objectives in this important area. He also stressed the need for good, effective public engagement and this was a recurring theme over the course of the day. It is important with this area that we ensure that we engage, consider and reflect on the diversity of views around plant technologies.
The morning speakers discussed the context and need for these new technologies and then described them in more detail. I was able to bring my knowledge up to date as I have been interested in the potential of novel technologies to alter gene expression in regard to animals for a number of years. Two speakers, Sophien Kamoun from The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, and Sebastian Schornack from The Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge, who have been at the forefront of developing some of these new methodologies in plants, gave very clear descriptions not only of what is presently available but also potential future developments. There is a good collection of papers on plant translational research which discusses some of the technologies and their potential.
The afternoon sessions were more focussed on regulation and risk assessment with experts from the UK, EU and Canada discussing a range of different approaches. A small subgroup of the workshop attendees will take the outputs of the presentations and discussions to formulate the position paper over the next few months which will then be published at the end of the summer. As one speaker quoted from a tweet ‘Medicines can cure you one day but plants save your life every day’!
Speaking of tweets I recently tweeted that we were looking for a new Council Chair – the details can be found on the Cabinet Office’s Public Appointments website and are also on Saxon Bampflyde’s website. The deadline for applications is 4 July 2014.