By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Bayer's CropScience unit plans to develop new heat- and drought-resistant wheat traits over the next decade without the use of genetic modification, a top executive said on Tuesday.
But Europe, the world's top wheat producer, must overcome its fear of agricultural innovation such as genetically modified (GM) crops or risk undermining its own food security, the division's chief executive officer, Sandra Peterson, told Reuters in an interview.
The German company has announced a series of deals and partnerships to increase its access to wheat seed traits, or "germplasm," as part of its program to develop improved varieties of the world's biggest cereal crop by planted area.
"The thing that has not had enough attention is really thinking about how to use modern breeding techniques to really look at the germplasm pools and find ways to actually improve yields, and to improve the heat and drought tolerance of these crops," Peterson said.
By using marker-assisted breeding techniques, which enable plant breeders to screen huge numbers of seeds for desired traits such as drought-resistance, Petersen said the company will be able to develop new varieties much more quickly.
"It's basically just turbo-charging traditional, classical breeding. Before we see the full impact of all of this it's ten years, but there are milestones in 2015, 2017, 2019 of things that are actually going to have an impact, and all of those first eight to ten years do not require the use of GMO (genetically modified organisms)," she said.
According to extracts of a speech she was due to give at the World Agricultural Forum in Brussels on Tuesday, Peterson warned European Union policy makers that such technological innovations will only be possible in the right regulatory environment.
"Our industry is not concerned that we might run out of innovative ideas to safeguard crops, but we are concerned about the regulatory and political obstacles on the last mile to the market."
Public opposition to genetically modified crops has led several EU governments to ban their cultivation, and at less than 100,000 hectares, GM crop production in Europe is a tiny fraction of the global total.
Recent proposals to reform the EU's 55 billion euros-($73 billion)-a-year farm policy, including plans to make European farmers adopt new environmental practices, went in the wrong direction, she told Reuters.
"Saying you must rotate three crops a year, a certain percentage of your land must be set aside, and some of the other proposals, my sense is that it's a little anti-technology, and the ability of European farmers to feed Europe is reduced as a result."
"It's critically important for Europe to have a different way to think about the role of agriculture in society and the economy here. Unfortunately, the trajectory we're on is not necessarily the right trajectory for the economic health, but also the social health of Europe."
Bayer CropScience is the world's second biggest maker of conventional crop chemicals after Syngenta of Switzerland. ($1 = 0.7490 euros)
(Editing by Anthony Barker)