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expert reaction to Germany’s move to ban GM crops

The German government is reported to have taken steps to stop the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops.

 

Prof. Jonathan Jones, Plant Molecular Biologist at The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, said:

“A German decision to opt out from growing GM crops appears to be predicated on the view that all GM crops are the same, and all GM crops are bad.   However, essentially the only GM crop available for planting in the EU at the moment is GM maize, resistant to the European corn borer.  This maize, which is widely planted in Spain and Portugal, and which would certainly thrive in Italy and France (though perhaps not Germany), results in lower losses to insects, less need for insecticides and can result in lower levels of mycotoxins caused by fungi that enter cobs via damage from feeding by insect larvae. It is puzzling why this GM maize is being banned, whilst organic beansprouts (which unlike GM crops, appear to have killed people) are still permitted.  It is understandable that some GM crops, for example those that carry herbicide resistance, may be unpalatable in some countries, but a blanket rejection of all GM crops just because of the method used during their development, has no support in science.”

 

Declared interests

Professor Jonathan Jones did his PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and then worked on symbiotic nitrogen fixation at Harvard. He began making GM plants in 1983 at a startup agbiotech company, Advanced Genetic Sciences (now defunct) in Oakland California, where he worked for 5 years. He used the GM method to make discoveries about what regulates gene expression in GM plants, and about plant transposable DNA.

Since 1988, Jones has been a researcher at the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich (www.tsl.ac.uk), funded largely by David Sainsbury’s private charity the Gatsby Foundation. He has led a well-regarded basic research program into mechanisms of plant disease and plant disease resistance, for which he was elected EMBO member in 1999 and FRS in 2003. He is one of the highest cited plant scientists in Europe ((http://www.labtimes.org/labtimes/ranking/2013_04/index2.lasso).

Jones is cofounder of (in 1997) and science advisor to the biotech company Mendel Biotechnology. Monsanto was a major client, but no longer is. As of July 2010, Mendel had been granted over 20 biotechnology and GM patents. In its 2008 Annual Report it listed as one of two lines of business that were central to its growth a collaborative project with Monsanto on soybean yield, “the basis of which is a Mendel technology”. However it is not clear if this trait will be brought to market. Mendel’s 2009 Annual Report noted two collaborative partnerships: one with Monsanto and the other with Bayer CropScience.

Jones also co-founded Norfolk Plant Sciences in 2007 with Prof Cathie Martin of JIC, with the goal of bringing flavonoid-enriched tomatoes to market (www.norfolkplantsciences.com). Regulatory constraints in Europe mean that the benefits of this product are likely to brought to market in Canada before this happens in Europe.

He is also on the Science advisory board of Nomad Biosciences in Halle, Germany, which aims to produce human pharmaceutical and other valuable proteins using plant viruses rather than GM plants.

He recently became a science advisor to start-up Scottish biotech company Synpromics (http://www.synpromics.com).

Jones is on the board of www.isaaa.org and the science advisory board of David Sainsbury’s 2Blades foundation (www.2blades.org).

In addition to his basic science programs, Jones has isolated and is isolating new resistance genes against potato late blight from wild relatives of potato, with the goal of using them to deliver market-favoured potato varieties that are protected from late blight by genes, rather than by chemistry. Patents have been filed on the Rpi-vnt1 gene, which was trialed in Norfolk, and the gene is being commercialized in the US by Simplot (www.simplot.com).

Because of his 30+ years of experience with using the GM method, his distinguished academic career, his commitment to public engagement, his familiarity with the seeds and agbiotech industry, and his concern that the potential benefits of using GM methods be brought to public use and not carelessly spurned, he is sporadically called upon to provide advice to government. He was a coauthor on http://royalsociety.org/policy/publications/2009/reaping-benefits/ and on the annexe to a recent report about GM requested by the Council on Science and Technology (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/genetic-modification-gm-technologies).

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