Memorandum submitted by the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (SFS 41)

 

Summary

 

1. When given access to the right tools, UK farmers are well placed to supply high quality, affordable food that fully meets consumer aspirations and can contribute to food security - an issue of increasing importance towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

2. The judicious use of biotechnology in agriculture is reducing the carbon footprint and environmental impact of farming, and must therefore be seen as a tool in the fight against climate change. New traits close to commercialisation will also mitigate changes by climate proofing food crops.

3. Enhancing the nutritional content of food is a priority; reducing the propensity for trans fats in food is already a commercial reality and new products such as omega-3 in soybeans are nearing the market.

 

Introduction

 

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc) welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence on the challenges of securing food supplies here in the UK.

 

abc is the umbrella group for the agricultural biotechnology industry in the UK. The companies involved include BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow Agrosciences, Pioneer (Du Pont), Monsanto and Syngenta. Our aim is to provide factual information about genetically modified (GM) crops in the UK and around the world and the important role of GM technology in delivering high quality affordable food in a way that minimises the environmental footprint of agriculture.

 

abc would like to respond to the specific themes of the EFRA inquiry as follows:

 

1. 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?

 

UK consumers expect to have access to safe, high quality, affordable food that is readily available and which has been produced in an "environmentally-friendly" fashion. UK farmers have been able to satisfy shifting consumer demands by investing in the latest technologies and in turn increasing productivity and reducing environmental and financial costs. UK consumers have greatly benefited from this: the proportion of monthly outgoing spent on food has decreased markedly over the last 50 years and new diet and life-style choices, such as organic or local sourcing, have been catered for.

 

More recently, the spectre of food security has risen again. As global population dynamics put pressure on the global agriculture supply chain, inevitably prices have risen steeply. Today, food processors and therefore retailers and consumers are faced with unstable and therefore unpredictable commodity prices and as a result many commentators and policy-makers have looked for a solution to the problem. Unfortunately, there is no one solution to food security or food inflation; no silver bullet and no quick fix. The approach to protecting the UK food supply must be integrated and reflective of the complexity of the food security issue. Investment in methodologies to increase agricultural productivity and reduce waste is the key to the future of food supply and Plant Biotechnology, including GM crops, can help form part of the solution by protecting yields and increasing productivity, thereby helping to stabilise food supplies and reduce the rising prices of milk, meat and other staple foods.

 

In addition, GM crops have a part to play in reducing the environmental and carbon footprint of agriculture, and in the near future, by climate proofing of agriculture with crops that can survive drought and require significantly less fertiliser.

 

The recent IGD report on consumer attitudes suggests that a majority of consumers are beginning to recognise the benefits of GM crops: 52% of those polled believed that GM can be used to increase productivity and feed a growing world population, with only 13% disagreeing with that view; likewise, 47% of consumers thought that GM can help to protect crops against disease and extreme weather, whereas 12% were not convinced.

 

Consumers are also looking harder at the nutritional content of their food and are increasingly health conscious. Biotechnology has a clear role in improving the nutritional quality and reducing the allergen content of foods. For example, the provision of vegetable oils with a better fatty acid profile is close to realisation commercially, as are GM varieties of oilseed rape and soybeans are in development with an increased polyunsaturated content.

 

The problem with such a profile, however is that they tend to be unstable when used in processed food; attempts to stabilise them lead to the production of trans-fats, which are associated with health problems. Oilseed rape and soybean crops have therefore been developed (using biotechnology even if the product is not genetically modified) with an oil profile with a near zero-trans fat potential (low linolenic acid), and have been for sale in the US and Canada for the first time this year. Even more exciting is the development of plants containing long chain omega-3 oil profiles. Nutritionists agree that oils that are high in polyunsaturates are healthier than others, especially if they contain omega-3 fatty acids, and traditionally the only source of these are fish oils. Research teams around the world, however, have succeeded in enriching vegetable oils with this essential fatty acid and soybeans with such a profile will be first to the market and are nearing commercialisation.

 

2. 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?

 

Any Government's role, from a regulatory perspective, is to ensure that food entering the market is safe to eat; decisions as to the availability of a product should be left to market forces. The provision of a healthy agricultural sector in the UK is no different. Given the best available tools on the market, UK farmers can meet the challenges of changing consumer preferences and climate change alike. Currently there are no suitable GM crops licensed for use in the UK, despite its use on 114 million hectares of land by 12 million farmers elsewhere in the world.

 

DEFRA should continue to ensure that UK farmers have access to the tools they need to increase productivity whilst reducing the carbon footprint and environmental impact of agriculture. This will involve leadership at a European level, ensuring that assessment processes for biotechnological products, including GMOs, are rigorously science based and that labelling thresholds for GM products are practical and not restrictively low. abc welcomes Defra's stance taken over these issues recently and hopes that a leadership position will continue in both outlining the potential contribution of agricultural biotechnology and countering potentially prohibitive action from being taken in Europe.

 

DEFRA must also show leadership in the UK to allow field trials GM crops to be able to be safely undertaken. Currently, UK Government legislation requires those conducting GM crop trials to release a six figure grid reference to disclose the exact location of the trial.  This information has to be published in a national newspaper and is readily available on the DEFRA website.   Whilst the industry supports disclosure of information transparency, this process is enabling anti groups to actively target those hosting the trials or in many cases attempt to destroy the trial site itself - seen most recently in 2007 in the vandalism of GM trials by Leeds University and at NIAB near Cambridge. Such arrangements deter investment in the UK and many other European countries remain more practical venues to conduct trials.  This is potentially putting the UK as risk of being left behind since it is critical to test specific GM traits in UK growing conditions, and DEFRA must therefore take a lead in assessing the effectiveness of the current regulations on disclosure and ensure illegal anti-GM activity is dealt with appropriately. Through specific regulatory changes, abc hopes that Defra will incentivise investment in biotechnological research in the UK and enable crop trials to proceed, which could help Government to realise its farming, health and environmental policy objectives.

 

abc hopes also that Defra will show Leadership by consistently engaging with all elements of the food industry and ensuring that Government action is reflective of and in response to industry's concerns.

 

The Food Standards Agency is an increasingly well respected and trusted organisation and its position as a DEFRA agency "independent" of political control is critical to its good name as a food regulator.

 

3. 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?

 

Issues central to the future of UK food policy are multifaceted and complex and abc therefore welcomes the publication of the Food Matters strategy and the cross-departmental work being undertaken to realise the Government's objectives. The fact that a number of Government Departments, including DH, DfID and DEFRA, are involved in the delivery of Food Matters highlights that, for the first time, a comprehensive, integrated UK food policy is being developed.

 

Key policy areas relevant to the future of agricultural biotechnology in the UK require a cross-Governmental approach. For crop trial regulations to successfully facilitate the trialling of GM crops, for example, the Home Office, Defra and BERR are required to be involved, and as agricultural biotechnology continues to be explored as part of the solution to food security we hope that this collaborative approach will continue.

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

Plant Biotechnology, including GM, could be a key contributor to the UK's ability to respond to the challenge of increased food production and could in turn contribute to strengthening food security and tackling climate change.

By protecting yields and increasing productivity GM can help to stabilise food supplies and reduce the rising prices of key commodities; GM can play a role in advancing developing nations' economic progress by increasing yields of food crops such as maize and cash crops such as cotton; and by reducing the environmental and carbon footprint of agriculture and by climate proofing of agriculture with crops that can survive drought and require significantly less fertiliser.

This is achievable on an international level but for this to benefit the UK, UK farmers require access to this technology, which requires a seismic change in the processing of GM applications stuck in the European regulatory system and an ability to carry out field trials without fear of vandalism. Europe has always been a powerhouse of agricultural production, and if this is to continue, the onus on the UK and Europe to increase agricultural productivity has never been greater.

 

 

January 2009