GM crop technologycan Europe afford to
be left behind?
Since the mid-1990s, global uptake of GM crop
technology has far outstripped the adoption of any other technological
innovation in agriculture. From 2.8 million hectares in 1996,
the area planted to GM crops worldwide increased to 52.6 million
hectares in 2001. 1
This dramatic growth in the scale of GM crop
plantings has been driven by farmers' direct experience of higher
yields, reduced fuel, labour and chemical inputs, improved crop
quality and greater ease and flexibility of crop management.
For example, a survey of Canadian oilseed rape
growers in 2000, conducted by the Canola Council of Canada, showed
that GM growers enjoyed a 10 per cent yield advantage, a 40 per
cent reduction in herbicide costs, fuel savings of 31.2 million
litres, and an increased net return to growers of $14.30 per hectare.
A similar survey of cotton growers in the Makhatini
region of South Africa in 1999-2000 produced even more dramatic
results. Compared with non-adopters, GM cotton growers reported
a 60 per cent increase in yield, a 38 per cent reduction in pesticide
cost, and a 77 per cent increase in gross margin. 3
In the US, independent estimates by the National
Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (January 2001) have reported
benefits across the following crops: 4
Bt corn66m bushels of corn
saved from the corn borer in 1999 (equivalent to production on
nearly 500,000 acres).
Bt cottonoverall reduction
of 2.7m lbs in insecticide use (15 million fewer applications);
net grower returns up by $99m in 1999.
Herbicide resistant cotton19
million fewer herbicide applications in 2000.
Herbicide resistant soybeans$216m
reduction in weed control costs in 1999 (19 million fewer herbicide
The application and development of agricultural
biotechnology is still in its infancy, but already Europe is lagging
several years behind other major regions of agricultural production.
There is no evidence of harmful effects from the commercial use
of GM crops which, according to a recent European Commission report,
are "probably even safer than conventional plants and foods".5
Europe's farmers cannot afford to lose their
ability to compete on world markets, or to access demonstrably
safe technologies with potential to improve the environmental
performance and sustainability of productive agriculture.
Members of the Committee may be interested to
note the following observations by Professor Sir John Marsh in
a paper entitled "Agriculture in the UKits role
and challenge", prepared in September 2001 for the Government's
Foresight Initiative6, in which he discusses the potentially significant
consequences for European agriculture as a result of continued
indecision and inaction on the part of EU Governments:
"IN affluent and traditional societies,
including much of the EU, negative voices tend to dominate the
debate. There is a persistent questioning of the integrity of
the scientist, of the objectivity of scientific committees that
advise governments and a strong emphasis on possible but improbable
catastrophic outcomes. Allied to a sense that "things are
alright as they are" governments are reluctant to confront
such anxieties and readily succumb to the convenience of the precautionary
principle. This avoids the need for decision now but does not
take account of the long-term damage that may result from such
"In competitive terms this can be considerable.
Other communities, which feel more keenly the need to increase
output or which are more ready to explore new technologies, will
seek to make use of the new science. As they do so the real costs
of production within their communities will tend to fall. The
problems encountered will be assessed and appropriate response
made and the biologically based industries move into a new era
as different from contemporary production as today's methods are
from those of the eighteenth century. For the UK and the EU this
is a cumulative disadvantage. Ultimately it may prove so large
that a major `catching up' programme will be needed. However,
that could prove structurally disruptive, costly and painful for
the businesses that prove to be obsolete."
"The implication of this brief exploration
of emerging technology is that the size of a competitive UK agriculture
will depend critically upon the responsibility with which governments
approach its development, application and monitoring requirements."
SCIMAC fully supports the application of robust,
science-based regulation to deliver safety and choice where use
of GM technology is concerned. But regulations must be workable
and enforceable in practice, and allow continued access to both
current and emerging technologies.
1. ISAAA, Annual Global Review of Commercialised
Transgenic (GM) Cropsat www.isaaa.org
2. "Impact of Transgenic Canola on
Growers, Industry and Environment", Canola Council of Canada,
2001at www.canola-council .org
3. "Farm level impact of Bt cotton
in South Africa", December 2001, at www.biotech-monitor.nl/4806.htm
4. "Agricultural Biotechnology: Updated
Benefit Estimates", National Center for Food and Agricultural
Policy, January 2001at www.ncfap.org
5. "Commission launches Round Table
on GMO safety research", Press Release IP/01/1391, 9 October
6. "Agriculture in the UKits
Role and Challenge", September 2001at www.foresight.gov.uk