Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence


GM crop technology—can 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. 2

  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 corn—66m bushels of corn saved from the corn borer in 1999 (equivalent to production on nearly 500,000 acres).

    —  Bt cotton—overall reduction of 2.7m lbs in insecticide use (15 million fewer applications); net grower returns up by $99m in 1999.

    —  Herbicide resistant cotton—19 million fewer herbicide applications in 2000.

    —  Herbicide resistant soybeans—$216m reduction in weed control costs in 1999 (19 million fewer herbicide applications).


  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 UK—its 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 inertia."

    "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) Crops—at

  2.  "Impact of Transgenic Canola on Growers, Industry and Environment", Canola Council of Canada, 2001—at www.canola-council .org

  3.  "Farm level impact of Bt cotton in South Africa", December 2001, at

  4.  "Agricultural Biotechnology: Updated Benefit Estimates", National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, January 2001—at

  5.  "Commission launches Round Table on GMO safety research", Press Release IP/01/1391, 9 October 2001.

  6.  "Agriculture in the UK—its Role and Challenge", September 2001—at

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