Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research


  1. There is a need to support the UK livestock production industry via the development of new forage varieties that will maximise the contribution that home-produced plant material will make to the ruminant diet. This will sustain and improve consumer confidence, reduce input costs, and should (in time) improve the quality, traceability and acceptability of the products.

  2. At present, the production of new forage varieties occurs mainly via conventional breeding. Increasingly, this is being supported by the application of molecular markers and wide hybridisation techniques to improve access to the existing range of variation within the gene pools of both clover and Lolium/Fescue grasses (the major forage species grown in the UK). Currently, genetic manipulation is being used experimentally to delineate specific targets from such programmes but, in IGER at least, under containment conditions.

  3. Both grasses and clovers are outbreeders, and have natural populations within the area of cultivation. Specific management systems for seed production have, therefore, been developed to prevent movement of unwanted traits from natural populations into commercial varieties. These techniques would, of course, be equally applicable to controlling any interactions between GM material and natural populations. Work at IGER and elsewhere has been carried out for a number of genes to assess the scale of gene flow across populations. In addition, the targets for all forage improvement in the UK, whether or not GM is involved (persistency, capability with white clover, and quality in terms of animal nutrition) are likely to reduce fitness in the natural environment by, inter alia, increasing the requirement for nitrogen to support protein accumulation, reducing competitive ability to generate a better balance with clover, or altering allocation of material away from poorly digestible stem material which, in the wild, would promote reproductive success.

  4. Thus, we consider that:

    (a)  the development of GM forages is not imminent but will, if permitted, form part of the breeder's armoury into the 21st century;

    (b)  the targets for such breeding efforts are unlikely to be directly and positively associated with fitness in natural mixed communities;

    (c)  the current regulatory framework is comprehensive enough to address issues regarding out-breeders and the development of adverse traits within natural communities.

July 1998

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