A treatment for plants which scientists have said acts like a ‘vaccine’ is under development as researchers battle to end the use of poisonous pesticides.
Last week, the government angered conservation groups by approving the use of a controversial neonicotinoid, which is proven to be fatal to bees and other animals.
The National Farmers’ Union campaigned for sugar beet growers to be able to use Cruiser SB, which tackles the disease Virus Yellows, in order to save this year’s crop.
The disease is carried by aphids, which are killed by the neonicotinoid.
However, groups including the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and the Campaign to Protect Rural England said this should not come at the expense of pollinators, which are vital for farming.
As governments try to phase out pesticides, scientists are working on alternatives.
Researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have been awarded a grant by the European Research Council to develop what has been described as a plant ‘vaccine’.
The approach, called Ultra-RNA, works at a molecular level to shield plants against viruses. They work out the viral RNAs inside plants and use this knowledge to design specific artificial small interfering RNAs to target and degrade the virus – without environmental damage associated with chemical interventions.
Roland Woutus, a research student working on the project, told BBC Farming Today that it would be the closest thing plants have to vaccines.
He told BBC’s Farming Today: "RNA is essentially a messenger of any organism. DNA is the building blocks of life but for any messages within a plant, RNA is used. It can also silence certain processes within a plant.
"You can see it as a vaccine but it’s different as vaccines trigger a long term protection but with plants it is not that easy.
"You have to introduce artificial RNA that is new to the plant, it is not targeting anything within the plant other than the virus. For as long as the plant has the RNA it is protected."
They hope the new technology can be implemented in British fields this year.
The scientist explained: "We hope we will be able to start doing field tests next year. We might be able to have a solution within five years time. It will be very useful for any biotech company to use this for plant viruses or maybe even animal viruses".
Group leader Dr Yiliang Ding added: “This is very much a team project and I am delighted that our work has been recognised in this way and my group can now look forward to developing urgently-needed solutions."
The research team added that their method would only target the harmful virus, unlike pesticides which can kill vast swathes of organisms.
The government is considering a range of technologies so pesticides can be phased out. Ministers recently announced that they would be approving gene edited crops for use, which can be made to be strengthened against diseases and thus reduce the need for toxic chemicals.