“We see the improvement of yield as imperative for a sustainable agriculture,” says Dr Jürgen Schweden, senior vice president for research and development at BASF Plant Science. “VIB has outstanding research expertise in the area of plant biotechnology and is therefore an ideal partner for BASF Plant Science.” The VIB team is based at Ghent University, in the plant systems biology department, led by Professor Dirk Inzé. On his department’s website he writes: “The global demand for plant-derived products such as feed and food is increasing dramatically. It is hard to fathom, but in the coming decades, three billion additional people will have to be fed while less arable land is available.”
The most promising avenue for increasing productivity is to improve agricultural yield, so that a limited area of land can be made to produce a greater quantity of crops.
This project, known as TopYield, will, according to VIB spokesman Joris Gansemans, take place in the university’s labs and employ about 20 full-time researchers. The project is financed largely by the government of Flanders’ Agency for Innovation in Science and Technology (IWT).
The TopYield announcement coincides with a dispute between the VIB and Flemish environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace, Oxfam and Bond Beter Leefmilieu, over another project on crop yields: a field trial involving 500 square metres of corn in Wetteren, East Flanders, a location familiar to protestors opposed to genetically modified (GM) organisms.
A field of GM potatoes planted by the VIB in Wetteren caused a protest by the Field Liberation Movement (FLM) last May. Much of the crop was damaged, but researchers were able to extract useful information from what was left.
Later, a plantation of 448 GM poplars in Zwijnaarde, near Ghent, engineered to be more efficient as bio-fuel material, also attracted the attention of the FLM, after it was initially refused a licence by the federal government, despite a positive opinion from the Biosafety Council.
The VIB has applied to the federal health ministry for a licence for the TopYield trial. The NGOs, in turn, have called on minister Melchior Wathelet to reject it.
The project, according to Lies Couckuyt of Landwijzer, which promotes organic agriculture, carries the danger of “toxic, allergenic or other hazardous effects. Furthermore, the necessary research hasn’t been done into possible damage to the environment, or to organisms other than the ones targeted.”
The corn in Wetteren will contain an implanted gene making it resistant to the herbicide glufosinate, derived from the lambda bacteriophage, which is closely associated with E coli. Couckuyt is concerned about contamination that would allow the plants to cause a mutation in E coli or other bacteria to make them more resistant.
GMO research, says Esmerelda Borgo of BioForum, an umbrella organisation of biological farming groups, “is very expensive and stays in the hands of multinationals or research centres that have connections with multinationals. Farmers are completely left out of the equation, and it’s an attack on their independence. We fear GMOs will lead to more costly seeds in the long term.”
Gansemans, though, say that “there is nothing to suggest that the field trial could have any consequence for human health or the environment. We are dealing with plants that produce a substance that is naturally present in plants; in these crops it is simply produced in larger quantities. This newly introduced property makes the plant larger, but not dangerous.”
He stresses that the field trial in Wetteren “is really basic research into the effects of a certain molecule produced by the corn plant” and has nothing to do with the TopYield project, or with any other body but the VIB and IWT. The project with BASF, he said, does not involve a field trial at this stage, so commercialisation of the results is not an issue.
The application for permission to carry out the trial is with Wathelet, and VIB hopes for a decision in time for planting in April or May. “The whole process is now with the Biosafety Council,” he says. “They will issue their advice on how to proceed. The decision is in the federal government’s hands.”