Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc)

In response to the Environment Audit Committee’s call for evidence, abc has prepared the following submission that looks primarily at the existing and potential future role of Genetic Modification (GM) technology in delivering a more sustainable food supply system in the UK.

The views expressed in this submission are those of abc - the umbrella organisation for the agricultural biotechnology industry in the UK. The companies involved are BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Pioneer (DuPont) and Syngenta. Our goal is to provide factual information and education about the agricultural use of GM technology, based on respect for public interest, opinions, and concerns.

1. Executive Summary

1.1. Food price rises, climate change and pressures on resources caused by increasing demand have made maintaining and improving UK food security ever more critical. Technology can play a part in increasing stability and resilience in the food supply system, but only if policy makers take bold steps to allow farmers to use such tools.

1.2. Genetic Modification (GM) technology is not a ‘silver bullet’ that will solve all of the challenges facing the global food supply system, but is does offer significant benefits to farmers, consumers and policy makers interested seeking solutions to UK food sustainability, food security and the fight against climate change:

§ GM technology can help farmers increase yields from the same amount of agricultural land, reducing the pressure on uncultivated land.

§ GM technology can help farmers reduce their carbon emissions and water use.

§ There is role for Government to lead science-based debate on the role of GM in food sustainability and to offer consumers well-informed personal choice.

§ There are risks inherent in refusing to utilise GM technology including more unstable food prices and reduced agricultural competitiveness.

1.3. This submission does not respond directly to those questions in the inquiry brief relating to localism and government procurement, as this falls outside the scope of abc’s work.

GM technology and background

2.1. GM crops are used extensively throughout the developed and developing world. Last year, over 15 million farmers in 29 countries chose to grow GM crops on 148 million hectares of their land. This amounts to the equivalent land mass of France, Germany and the UK & Ireland [1] .

2.2. However, the current scientific approvals system in Europe is mired in delays caused by political interference. This means that UK farmers are unable to access a vital tool to increase the sustainability of our food supply chain. It also directs agricultural R&D investment away from Britain and Europe.

2.3. The Government Office for Science has recently published the Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures. This recognised the role of technology, stating that ‘investment in research on modern technologies is essential in light of the magnitude of the challenges for food security in the coming decades’ [2] .

3. How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat best be reduced? What are the land-use trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these be managed?

3.1. With the global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, agriculture faces the challenge of feeding an extra 2 billion people on a finite amount of land and with increasing competition for natural resources. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture must reduce.

3.2. Agricultural innovations such as biotechnology can help to reconcile these conflicting goals and reduce the environmental impacts of food production in a number of ways: through ‘sustainable intensification’, reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture, improving water management, and reducing pesticide application.

3.3. ‘Sustainable intensification’

3.3.1. As highlighted in the Foresight Report, ‘There are strong environmental grounds for limiting any significant expansion of agricultural land in the future […] In particular, further conversion of rainforest to agricultural land should be avoided as it will increase greenhouse gas emissions very significantly and accelerate the loss of biodiversity’ [3] .

3.3.2. Achieving the difficult goal of generating increased yields from the same amount of agricultural land is known as ‘sustainable intensification’. Biotechnology is one of the tools which farmers can use to achieve sustainable intensification, offering the potential for increased yields of 6% - 30% on the same amount of land [4] .

3.3.3. Enabling farmers to obtain greater yields from the same amount of agricultural land also reduces the pressure on marginal uncultivated land such as the rainforests.

3.4. Reduced CO2 emissions

3.4.1. Biotechnology can reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of agriculture itself.

§ Fuel use and CO2 emissions can be decreased thanks to less tillage. In 2009, GM cultivation led to global emissions reductions of 18 billion kg of CO2, equivalent to 8 million fewer cars on the road for one year [5] .

§ Insect damage to crops is decreased with pest resistant crops, significantly reducing the need for spraying with chemicals and the associated carbon generation.

3.5. Water management

3.5.1. By 2025 it is estimated that about 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity [6] . As climate change makes growing conditions more unpredictable around the world, GM crops can also help to increase the reliability of crop yields and sustainable water management by:

§ Reducing water loss and improving drought tolerance.

§ Protecting soils from erosion and compaction through less ploughing, conserving soil moisture in the process.

3.5.2. Second generation GM products are now nearing commercialisation, including drought tolerant crops, such as maize, which can maintain and even increase crop yields despite changes in water supply.  

§ These varieties could produce 2 million more tonnes of food under moderate drought conditions.

3.6. Reduced pesticide application

3.6.1. By reducing the frequency of activity required to remove weeds or pests, biotech improved crops can reduce the use of chemical inputs, soil tillage and fossil fuel use.

§ In turn, this can reduce soil erosion, runoff from farmers’ fields and CO2 emissions (as above).

GM technology does not exist in isolation, and its effective use relies on other innovations in agriculture such as the use of crop protection products and modern management techniques. However, in order for the UK to realise these benefits, GM must be part of the mix of technologies available to farmers. Currently, the vast majority of GM products are inaccessible to UK and European farmers due to the existing European regulatory framework.

3.8. Europe is therefore using more land and resources then necessary to grow crops. With an increasing population, food security will only worsen and pressure on land use increase without the utilisation of technologies such as GM.

3.9. This is not only damaging to the competitiveness of the UK agricultural industry, but also pushes our share of the global responsibility for increasing yields onto producers outside Europe and in the developing world. This increases the pressure and environmental impact on resource-stressed areas.

4. How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

4.1. In order to deliver sustainable and affordable food for all, the UK Government must address stability of food prices and stability of supply in the face of rising demand from the growing global population.

4.2. UK farmers and our food chain operate within a global market, and must be able to use all technologies available to remain globally competitive and play a crucial role in delivering global food stability.

4.3. Without the latest technological innovations, UK farmers will find it increasingly difficult to achieve ‘sustainable intensification’, food price instability may increase, pressures on precious areas of natural land will intensify and policy makers may struggle to address hunger and under-nutrition.

4.4. GM crops form part of a mix of technologies and techniques which can help UK farmers improve the reliability of the food supply, and the Foresight Report recognises the importance of investment in agricultural innovation:

§ ‘Investment in research on modern technologies is essential in light of the magnitude of the challenges for food security in the coming decades’ [7] .

4.5. Support for greater investment in agricultural technology and innovation in the UK could have a direct impact on food prices and food security, by increasing investment in crops designed with particular applicability to the UK.

§ Investment in a combination of conventional plant breeding and GM has seen the rate of yield increase in North America greatly exceed yield gains in Europe over the last 15 years [8] .

4.6. Such investment can be generated from the private sector through a positive and robust regulatory regime which allows public private partnerships to flourish, with the potential for billions of pounds of such investment in ‘green’ biotechnology jobs and highly skilled employment in the UK (such as Syngenta’s facility at Jealott’s Hill). Such R&D could also assist an export led recovery as knowledge and intellectual property is exported round the world.

4.7. In addition to securing the sustainability and affordability of food, GM technology can also deliver other benefits to consumers, with exciting prospects in the pipeline. GM technologies can make food oils healthier, for example, by reducing the saturated fatty acid content or by producing omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with many health benefits.

5. How can consumers best be helped to make more sustainable choices about food?

5.1. In order for consumers to make sustainable choices about their food, they must be fully informed about the benefits and impact of their food choices, and also have access to a range of options.

5.2. The Foresight report recognises that clear communication on biotechnology is critical – ‘not just to spread new knowledge to policy-makers and potential users, but also to the public, specifically to engender trust in new science and its application’ [9] .

5.3. Several recent surveys have shown that the attitudes of UK consumers are open to the possibilities presented by biotechnology:

§ 52% of UK consumers consider GM a means of tackling growing global food shortages (only 13% disagreed with this idea) [10] .

§ 47% of UK consumers say GM crops would help farmers deal with increasingly extreme weather conditions and combat plant diseases (only 12% disagree) [11] .

§ 64% of UK consumers agree with the statement ‘The European Union should encourage its farmers to take advantage of progress in biotechnology’ [12] .

§ On average, only 5% of consumers questioned express unprompted concern about GM food [13] .

5.4. However, consumers currently have no real way of exercising choice over whether to purchase products containing GM products and therefore cannot make an informed choice about the sustainability of the food they buy. We look forward to the day when consumers are able to vote with their wallets on this subject.
Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food industry?

5.5. In both food production and the supply chain, a significant barrier to UK competitiveness, ‘sustainable intensification’ and agricultural trade is the current European policy on GM.

5.6. In 2010 a European Commission research compendium ‘A decade of EU-funded GMO research’ revealed that over the last 25 years, more than 500 independent research groups have investigated the safety of genetically modified crops. They concluded:

§ ‘according to the projects' results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.’ [14]

5.7. In spite of these findings, EU restrictions on the import and cultivation of GM feed and food are amongst the most restrictive in the world. This presents a problem for ensuring food security and affordability, both by impairing sustainability in food production, and by risking unnecessary cost in the supply chain.

5.8. A barrier to sustainable food production:

5.8.1. The process for approving GM traits for cultivation by EU farmers has been beset by delays and political interference over the past 14 years. As a result, it has suffocated the development of UK and EU based innovation and has acted as a disincentive for companies to develop crops optimised for European use.

§ Only two products from over 25 waiting for assessment have been approved for cultivation in the European Union throughout this time, despite a rigorous safety process. While many other products have waited for years for approval or otherwise due to political interference in what should be a science based assessment process.

5.9. A restriction in the supply chain:

5.9.1. The UK livestock market relies on the importation of low cost GM soy feed from areas such as South America and the US. Currently, that soy can be turned away if it contains traces of GM feed which has been approved in the export country but not in the EU.

5.9.2. To avoid importers viewing the EU and UK as impossible markets to operate in, the EU is in the process of approving a technical solution to allow the import of shipments containing <0.1% unapproved GMOs, provided they have received a positive safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority.

5.9.3. This technical solution is welcome. However, the Commission is also seeking to grant EU member states the right to invoke a safeguard clause to ban the cultivation in their territories of a specific GM crop which has been approved for cultivation in the EU as a whole.

5.9.4. Most of the suggested grounds for opting-out are unlikely to withstand scrutiny by the European Court of Justice, because they are redundant, arbitrary, or both. Hence they are not a basis for substantive, persuasive or unequivocal evidence which would be required to justify a ban.

5.9.5. abc, along with a wide range of other stakeholders, is concerned that this new proposal will stem EU innovation, lead to more political interference in cultivation approvals and disrupt the EU internal market in agriculture. Discussions continue on these proposals, with key votes taking place over the next few months.

5.10. The UK Government must now work with European partners to ensure Europe’s feed and food supplies are placed on a more secure footing by developing a longer term workable solution.

5.11. We believe any LLP limit should apply to both feed and food supplies to reduce uncertainty, costs and administration and that Europe should take a more enlightened view on allowing imports of food and feedstuffs that are approved and safely used within our trading partner’s jurisdictions.

5.12. Many Member States have indicated their support for such a move, but it is up to the most influential players in Europe, such as the UK to make the case.

5.13. The UK should lead the debate to ensure the final regulations are based on sound science, are internationally compliant and are workable and beneficial to UK farmers and consumers.

25 March 2011

[1] Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010,

[2] Foresight Report - The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability, BIS 2011, p 5.

[3] Foresight Report - The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability, BIS 2011, p 15.

[4] “ Peer-reviewed surveys indicate positive impact of commercialized GM crops”, Janet Carpenter, Nature Biotechnology 2010

[5] Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010,

[6] Coping with water scarcity. Challenge of the twenty-first century. UN-Water, FAO. 2007

[7] Foresight Report - The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability, BIS 2011, p 5

[8] Average yields of maize in France have gone from one ton per hectare more than the USA in 2000 to one ton less than the USA in 200 9.

[9] Foresight Report - The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability, BIS 2011, p 18

[10] Genetically Modified Foods, IGD 2008,

[11] Genetically Modified Foods, IGD 2008,

[12] Eurobarometer,

[13] The Food Standards Agency tracker survey , 2009

[14] A decade of EU-funded GMO research,