Farmer sows seeds of change

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The Independent Online
ROBERT APPEL has one principal worry about being the first person to grow soya beans commercially in Britain.

"We're terrified that some load of eco-protesters are going to drive along the road, see these plants and think they're a load of these Frankenstein things," he said.

"So we're thinking of labelling them to point out that this is not genetically modified. It's just soya. And it's the first time anyone has grown it in this country."

Amidst the furore about GM crops and foods in the past week, the fact that nobody grows soya in the UK has gone largely unreported. Certainly, few people have asked why it is the United States which is the primary source for soya - and hence responsible for the introduction of GM elements into foods such as cakes, biscuits and bread in British shops.

"The reason is that before now, nobody had bred a strain of soya which would grow this far from the Equator," said Mr Appel, who is managing director of his own seed firm, based in Waltham Chase, Hampshire.

Soya beans are an East Asian plant which has been cultivated in China for about 1,000 years and was brought to America and Europe in the 19th century. Today, the US grows more than half of the world's crop.

"Now a team in Finland has managed to produce a strain which will grow above 52 degrees north and below 52 south of the Equator," explained Mr Appel. "We have been test-growing it in New Zealand, and in spring we will start sowing it here."

He is keen to emphasise that no genetic engineering was involved in producing the new strain. "We have talked to a number of food manufacturers and chicken and turkey producers. And the fact is that the first of those white meat producers who can go and say that their animals are fed on non-GM soya is going to get a ton of business."

Certainly, any food processor or manufacturer trying to guarantee that soya bought from the US will not contain DNA from Monsanto's GM "Roundup Ready" soya, which is resistant to its Roundup herbicide, faces a tough task. Earlier this week, Linda McCartney sausages and Iceland products have been shown to contain at least traces of the Monsanto DNA. "I would doubt anyone's claims to have sourced non-GM soya from the US," said Mr Appel.

But can he be sure that British-grown soya will compete on price with the enormous American producers, who farm thousands of hectares and ship in bulk?

"Oh yes, absolutely," he said. "It will get a subsidy from Brussels. It falls under the same category as oilseed rape."