AberMagic Is Casting a Spell over the World of Rural Science; TAKING ON A LEADING ROLE IN PROVIDING FOR FUTURE

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Byline: STEVE DUBe

FARMERS across the world have reason to look towards Aberystwyth.

Plant varieties like AberMagic developed at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences - Ibers - are high sugar grasses with improved protein content and increased yields while also reducing the effluent and greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.

"It increases the value of the livestock while also helping to reduce climate change factors," says Ibers director Wayne Powell.

AberMagic is one reason why Ibers was awarded the highlyprestigious Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education last November.

Other reasons included the development at Aberystwyth of more persistent and consistent white clovers, high-quality oats, improved turf grasses, and - in collaboration with breeders in India - disease-resistant pearl millet.

The prize also recognised the way in which postgraduate teaching and research at Ibers is helping to produce the next generation of plant breeders.

With the global population predicted to rise from the current level of six billion to around nine billion people by 2050, the institute's laboratories and 1,000 hectares of farms have a leading role to play in developing varieties to feed a world of changing climates.

"Productivity centred policies cannot be the main or only drivers," says Professor Powell. "We need productivity centred policies built around sustainability and natural resources. "When our children and grandchildren get to our age they are likely to see a drop off in population growth, so the natural resources on which we build our planet are going to be the drivers."

That means bringing together what are sometimes seen as the competing aims of environmentalists and farmers - in effect echoing the credo of Sir George Stapledon, who found the plant breeding station at Aberystwyth in 1919.

"We need not so much to look at environmental policies but at the aspirations of farmers," says Professor Powell.

"We need eco-system-based approaches and entrepreneurial farmers who are willing to champion this and take things forward. It means working together and doing things differently."

Innovation, science, technology and entrepreneurial spirit are buzz words for Professor Powell, and the controversial matter of genetic modification is inevitably one that interests the UK's leading plant-breeding establishment.

"We have got to be an advocate for the responsible deployment of science and technology that meets the needs of society and government," he says.

"With the GM issue we have got to get away from talking about the technology and talk about biology.

"We have to talk about the trait that's being genetically modified, and that opens up a different type of conversation."

He argues that there has been no debate about the complex issue of the relationship of GM technology to sustainability.

"You can see GM being used as environmental indicators of pollution - there are a lot of implications that are not directly food-related," he says. "The work we do is limited. We use it experimentally and in the lab but we are not involved in commercialising GM.

"The regulatory framework costs about pounds 10m and almost forces the technology into the hands of the multinationals - it's very difficult for small companies and institutions to develop it. We need to consider GM programmes that are not driven by shareholder value. Why should not Wales have a major GM programme for the benefit of its citizens and its environment? "It's going to require a lot of creativity and a lot of innovation and a lot of creative thinking and a lot of entrepreneur spirit but we should not blinker that out in the current environment and the current global needs. …