Memorandum submitted by Syngenta (SFS 64)

 

1. Introduction

 

1.1 Syngenta is a world-leading agribusiness committed to sustainable agriculture. The company's innovative research and technology helps maximise food, fibre and bio-fuels production whilst protecting the environment. The company is a leader in crop protection and ranks third in the global commercial seeds market with sales of $8.1 billion in 2006. Syngenta employs 21,500 people in over 90 countries.

1.2 Syngenta has a strong UK heritage, operating here for nearly 100 years. We are one of the country's top 35 biggest investors in research and development (R&D) as evidenced by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform's 2008 R&D Scoreboard, which also places Syngenta as the top chemicals investor in the UK.

1.3 We also contribute over $1 billion of value to UK exports and have the largest dedicated agricultural research centre in Europe, based at Jealott's Hill in Berkshire, where we employ over 500 scientists, including many world leading chemists, biologists and environmental scientists. Syngenta spends $200m a year on agricultural research in the UK and $800m globally, in an industry where it can take 10 years and up to $280m worth of investment to bring a new product to market.

1.4 Given our role supporting primary producers in the UK and around the world, we welcome the opportunity to respond to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee inquiry, Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenge for the UK, and hope that our response is a useful and informative contribution.

 

2. Syngenta Position

 

The challenge

2.1 At present UK consumers have a reliable and consistent set of quality and healthy food choices available to them. Much food is produced domestically. However the UK food supply is also tied to a complex global system of food production and distribution, the overall stability and security of which is dependent on variables ranging from global weather patterns to international politics. Systemic pressures during 2008 - both environmental and political - caused the price of some food commodities in the global market to increase sharply. Such volatility raises questions about the robustness of the global food supply system in the face of rapid population growth, increasing water scarcity and a limited availability of agricultural land.

2.2 Although the UK has an advanced and well developed agricultural sector and we are well positioned to grow significant amounts of food for domestic consumption it would be difficult, and not particularly desirable to consumers, to achieve national food security by working towards self-sufficiency. Certainly UK domestic food production should be supported and encouraged, but the overall security of the UK food supply will to some extent remain dependent on the outcomes of agricultural production elsewhere in the world.

2.3 The challenge for the UK is to play its part in a sustainable agricultural system in Europe which maximises production through increases in yield, whilst minimising the environmental impact.

 

The potential of technology

2.4 Successful agriculture is reliant on safe and effective inputs. Accordingly, it is our view that agrochemical and biotechnology products have a significant and important role to play in ensuring global agriculture fulfils its potential. Seed- and crop-protection products provide farmers, at home and abroad, with a proven range of tools that enable them to deliver consistent and reliable supplies of quality raw materials to global food markets. Our products have helped increase yields by safeguarding crops and maximising the use of finite and scarce resources such as land and water - a dual benefit.

2.5 It is worth referencing the table below to get an understanding of the benefit crop protection products (CP) can deliver:

 

2.6 Evidence shows that technology works in agriculture. In the United States, farmers have clearly demonstrated the value of technology, not only through the use of seed- and crop-protection products but also through the application of modern advanced farming practices. It is this combination of new technologies and innovative approaches that has produced results. Whilst we recognise that farming methods do and should vary around the world the example of the United States highlights that agriculture need not be a static process where innovation and progress are automatically rejected on the basis that they bring something new.

The current situation

 

2.7 By embracing technological innovation globally, agriculture could deliver a range of environmental and economic benefits. The current negative attitude of many within Europe towards technology and science in agriculture means that farmers in Europe may be denied access to a full set of tools with which to aid productivity and play a part in securing global food supplies. The EU's recent decision to limit pesticide use is a good example of how important decisions relating to food security can be made with little understanding of either scientific evidence or potential impact. The slow and cumbersome EU approval process for GM crops and products is also placing significant pressures on farmers in Europe. Such developments highlight the need for the UK and other enlightened member states to present a better and more forceful case politically in Europe if food security is not to be undermined by perhaps well intentioned but ultimately counter-productive political intervention.

2.8 The position in Europe also sends a signal to the international community that the application of technology in agriculture is to be avoided where possible - despite products being deemed safe by regulators. Europe risks seriously undermining the productivity of its own farmers by adopting the position it has. Its approach may also have a significant bearing on the approaches of governments and regulators in countries where farmers, particularly in less developed countries, have little chance of being fully productive without the helping hand of technology. To counter this view the UK should clarify its own position, making clear to foreign governments where possible that it supports the use of technology in global agriculture as an essential input.

 

How the UK government should respond

2.9 The UK government has a leadership role to play if it is serious about working to secure food supplies at home and abroad. There would be a double edged benefit for the UK in showing such leadership. The development of solutions and products in the UK - at sites such as Jealott's Hill - can both play an important role in addressing fundamental concerns around food security whilst also capitalising on home grown scientific expertise in this area.

2.10 Based on these comments there are a number of key conclusions and recommendations that we wish to set out to the committee:

 

Defra in conjunction with FCO and DfID should look to proactively voice support in European and international bodies for agricultural technologies that help farmers safeguard and increase agricultural production thereby helping to secure global food supplies without further increasing environmental impact.

 

Defra should look to promote the principle in Europe that the regulation of agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology products should be undertaken on a risk rather than hazard basis and promote a requirement for an EU-wide impact assessments as part any new proposals in this area.

 

Defra and the FSA, as the UK representatives on agricultural, food and feed issues, should vote positively in the GM approvals process in the EU where evidence from the relevant independent scientific bodies indicates that products are safe for human and animal health and the environment.

 

Defra should look to encourage the European Commission to continue its Sherpa initiative on member state voting relating to GM.

 

Defra should actively discourage the inclusion of socio-economic considerations as part of a science based approval process.

 

Defra should find ways to encourage and protect GM trials in the UK.

 

3. Response to questions

 

3.1 We have approached the committee's questions within the context of our position statement and the associated recommendations. We would be delighted to offer more insight and information to the committee either through oral evidence or meeting individually with those members of the committee who would like to understand more about the work we do.

 

How robust is the current UK food system? What are its main strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths

3.2 The current UK food system is robust, in part because we can grow a reasonable amount of our own food domestically. The experience and calibre of farmers in the UK also provides a safeguard against some of the external pressures. At the processing, manufacturing, distribution and retail levels the system is generally able to deliver high volumes of safe, quality food to market at affordable prices.

3.3 Although the picture in terms of consumer acceptance of technologies such as GM remains unclear, we feel that in general there is an acceptance that technological inputs such as pesticides play a role in helping to secure the production of safe, low cost food in the UK. We see such consumer acceptance as a strength to the system overall and one that the government and regulators should work to maintain and develop where possible.

Weaknesses

3.4 As we have set out in our position statement the UK is in part integrated in a global food supply, which means that it is inherently impacted by pressures in the wider system. This will always be a point of potential weakness. Again as we have outlined above we believe that crop protection and other agricultural technologies will continue to play a valuable role in stabilising production and securing supply in the UK and beyond.

3.5 On the consumer side we also believe that the overall system is weakened by poor consumer understanding of the food system generally and the application of technology and new approaches specifically. It is important to debunk the myths associated with modern farming practices if the system is to develop and implement new approaches that will help strengthen the system and secure food supplies.

 

In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system:

Soil quality

3.6 Maintaining healthy soils is crucial for productive agriculture be it in the UK or further afield. But soil is constantly under threat from erosion, salinisation, loss of organic matter, desertification, and 'soil ceiling' driven by the expansion of urban areas. Unless soils are protected, the productivity of the world's crops will be impaired, yields will drop, and we will be unable to meet the dietary needs of a growing population.

3.7 Conservation/minimum tillage farming helps to conserve soil structure by leaving roots intact, helping to prevent soil erosion. There are benefits for farmers and their families arising from a reduction in the need for constant hand-weeding, while cutting the costs and carbon emissions associated with mechanised tilling. Technology has a role to play here. Syngenta is involved in several multi-stakeholder projects across the world to promote soil conservation. You can find out more about this work here - http://www.sowap.org/comms/media/pdf/conservationagriculture.pdf

Water availability.

3.8 Agriculture consumes the vast majority of water taken from rivers, lakes and aquifers, accounting for up to 70% of global water use. Access to water is therefore crucial for agricultural productivity and yet one third of world agriculture is either in or close to areas considered to be water scarce.

3.9 Given the trends identified by climate change experts, it is essential that agriculture find ways to sustain its water supply and use the resource as efficiently as possible. Many companies, including Syngenta, are field testing crops developed through native traits breeding and also working to develop genetically modified crops that are able to continue to yield under severe water stress; this is as relevant to farmers in East Anglia as it is in East Africa.

The science base

3.10 We believe that it is important for the UK to continue to play a role in developing and strengthening its science base, particularly in areas relating to primary production. Syngenta are the only major company in the agricultural technology sector who continue to maintain a large scale R&D facility in the UK with our campus at Jealott's Hill, Berkshire. Some of the world's most advanced research into the development of pesticides, new breeding methods, and agricultural processes takes place at this site.

3.11 But it is clear that the current political environment in Europe makes justifying continued investment in technologies such as GM unsustainable. Syngenta reluctantly moved its GM research facility from Jealott's Hill to North Carolina in the United States in 2004. This was in part due to the limited commercial opportunity for the technology in Europe but the decision was also influenced by the adverse political climate. It will be hard for the UK to maintain genuine global leadership in regard to agricultural technology if it fails to train and develop scientists who hold expertise in GM technologies. This is a highly desirable area of research for many of the UK's best chemists and biologists and they will increasingly look to go abroad to train and develop research if the opportunities do not exist at home.

Trade barriers

3.12 The lack of acceptance of GM crops within Europe represents an increasingly frustrating trade barrier that has a direct impact on food security. Failure to acknowledge the role GM crops can play means that UK farmers do not have access to the best possible tools, whilst the UKs' imports of non-GM crops become increasingly expensive as emerging markets provide an expanding market for GM growers in North and South America.

3.13 For over a decade now, farmers have used GM Crop technology to improve productivity by both protecting and increasing yields, particularly through virus and insect resistant plants. Genetically modified crops are already helping over 12 million farmers around the world, including many farmers in the EU, by delivering more consistent yields of higher quality crops. The vast majority are resource-poor growers with small plots of land whose lives can be significantly improved through GM technology.

3.14 Today, companies like Syngenta, are engaged in the research and development of the next generation of GM Crops, which will be targeted at overcoming the challenges facing agriculture.

 

What trends are likely to emerge on the demand side of the food system in the UK, in terms of consumer taste and habits, and what will be their main effect? What use could be made of local food networks?

3.15 Food production needs to be responsive to consumer demands. Although consumers are often keen to try new - perhaps novel - food products we feel that core products that deliver balanced diet will continue to be fundamental. Fresh fruit, vegetables and cereals will continue to underpin the diets of most consumers, delivering nutrition and associated health benefits.

3.16 There is a role for local food networks - but we would warn against suggestions that these networks could completely replace the large scale processing, distribution and retail networks that currently deliver high quality food and choice for all consumers.

 

What role should Defra play both in ensuring that the strengths of the UK food system are maintained and in addressing the weaknesses that have been identified? What leadership and assistance should Defra provide to the food industry?

3.17 As we have outlined in our position statement and recommendations we believe that Defra has a significant role to play in promoting the use of technology to strength food production processes in the UK and beyond.

 

How well does Defra engage with other relevant departments across Government, and with European and international bodies, on food policy and the regulatory framework for the food supply chain? Is there a coherent cross-Government food strategy?

3.18 The recent changes to Defra have ensured that the department is now better focused on its remit to safeguard and strengthen the UK food supply chain. This can only be positive.

3.19 Although Defra is already quite active in terms of its engagement across Government and external organisations as we have set out in our recommendations we believe that the department should look to extend and increase its activities. We welcome the recent 'Food Matters' report from the Number 10 Strategy Unit, the creation of the Council of Food Policy Advisors and the announcement of the Foresight Report into global food security - all of which play a part in ensuring that government has a coherent food strategy. But action must be the key - and we feel that there has been considerable effort in identifying the challenges but too few clear actions outlined to date.

 

How well placed is the UK to make the most of its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by 2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

3.20 As we have pointed out the UK is part of a wider food supply system. Although we have the ability to grow significant amounts of food domestically the integrity and stability of the overall supply system will be dependent on external as well as internal factors.

3.21 Increasing global food production to meet the challenge of population growth whilst also minimising the impact on the environment will be a significant and pressing challenge. Again, as we have detailed we believe that technology has an important role to play in helping the UK and all food producing countries to meet the challenge.

 

Luke Gibbs

Head of Public Affairs (UK&I)

 

January 2009