Sustainable food

Further written evidence submitted by the Agricultural Biotechnology Council

The potential for GM technology to help / hinder the development of sustainable food systems.

1. What are the benefits or drawbacks of GM crops to food production?

n GM technology is one of a number of new techniques that have been developed to help farmers in different parts of the world improve the reliability of crop production.

n It is used extensively in many regions of the world, notably in North and South America, India, China, Australia and parts of Africa. Over 90% of those using the technology are resource-poor small-scale farmers working in developing countries. In 2010, GM technology was used on over 148 million hectares of land [1]  .

n Some of the benefits already accrued by such farmers include increased yield and greater pest and disease resistance. When used in conjunction with the right crop management techniques, the technology can also lead to a substantial reduction in inputs. Use of GM led to global emissions reductions of 17.6 billion kg of CO2 in 2009 due to the reduced need to plough land.

n Research indicates that the use of GM in the areas where it is grown has led to a 6 – 30 per cent increase in yields on the same area of land [2]  , reducing pressure on uncultivated areas. If the 229 million tons of additional food, feed and fibre produced by GM crops during the period 1996 to 2009 had not been produced, an additional 75 million hectares of conventional crops would have been required to produce the same tonnage.

n New traits under development include crops with better nutritional content and greater drought resistance for use in water stressed regions of the world [3] .

n The technology is subject to a strict safety assessment before it is used in the field which can lead to a long lag time between its development and use and benefit to the food system.

2. What is the wider impact of restrictions on GMOs in the UK? I.e. is it fair for Europe to restrict the use of GM crop technology in the face of an impending food crisis?

n GM crops are not commercially grown in the UK, although there are some ongoing trials. Our food supply system does, however, rely on crops grown in other parts of the world, primarily to provide animal feed to satisfy consumer demand for meat products. A large proportion of these crops are now GM. Without this supply line, UK farmers would not be able to reliably source suitable protein for the dairy and meat industries, and would not be able to compete on price with other countries within the EU and further afield which do have such access.

n The existing regulatory approach in the EU makes it difficult for imports of GM products, such as soy, to proceed due to the lengthy time it takes for dossiers of new crop types to be approved. The regime in Europe also makes it very difficult and cumbersome for GM crops to be cultivated within the EU. abc is of the view that the whilst the existing regulatory approach is based on the science underpinning the development and cultivation of GM crops, the overlaying of a political voting step stifles progress in this area. Abc notes, however, that the UK Government, in contrast to the wider EU, does base its decisions on the science and votes accordingly.

n The UK already has one of the worst food security ratios (imports versus domestic cultivation) in the western world, demonstrating its reliance on imports. As Europe has chosen, thus far, to heavily restrict the cultivation and importation of GM products, it has effectively ‘outsourced’ the supply chain for commodities such as protein for animal feed to other parts of the world. The EU’s net agricultural imports are equivalent to outsourcing arable land almost the size of Germany [4] .

n Such reliance on other parts of the world worsens Europe’s food security; runs counter to the original self sufficiency aims of the Common Agricultural Policy and undermines European competitiveness.

n As the Foresight report highlighted, genetic modification is one of a number of new technologies that should be considered when attempting to deal with the challenge of rising demand and increasing stress on resources. Whatever the decision by regulators within Europe, the reality now is that other parts of the world are forging ahead with GM cultivation and Europe may come to rely even more on imports of certain food stuffs than is currently the case.

3. The Committee has heard about the claimed environmental benefits of GM crops, but what are the social benefits / drawbacks of GMOs? (this could include health benefits, producer pressures, or other farmer benefits)

n Advances in agricultural technology in the last 300 years have had an immense impact on the organisation of societies and the food available to them. In the 20th century great gains were made in increasing production and making food more affordable to more people, yet the challenge is not yet over. New technologies, including GM, have a role to play in boosting output and farmer incomes to help alleviate hunger and cope with the future food challenges facing policymakers.

n In 2010, over 15 million farmers in 29 countries cultivated GM crops. The reasons why farmers choose to do so include the potential yield increases and extra income that results - social benefits that impact on rural communities. Over 90% (14.4 million) of famers who grew GM crops on 2012 were small resource poor farmers in developing countries - farm size has not been a factor in affecting their choice to do so.

n Most farmers who choose to grow GM continue to use it – for instance, 93% of Spanish farmers who grew GM maize in 2010 said they would do so again in 2011 [5] .

n Independent research into the economic impact of GM cultivation demonstrates clear benefits. Net economic benefits at farm level from growing GM (as opposed to conventional) crops have been estimated at $11bn in 2009, or nearly $65bn over the period 1996 to 2009.

n At a macro level, there are other identifiable benefits to growing GM crops. These include greater worldwide food security in the light of an increasing world population with limited land for cultivation. Additional production resulting from the use of GM crops in 2009 can be quantified as equivalent to feeding 88 million extra people. World prices of maize, soybeans and rapeseed would probably be respectively +6%, +10% and +4% higher than current levels if there were no GM crops [6]  .

n As an example, the following facts illustrate the impact the cultivation of Bt maize has had in Europe (in countries such as Spain):

· 91000 ha of Bt maize are grown in the EU (in 2010)

· 6.3% extra crop yields on average

· Up to 20% extra crop yields in particular areas

· 12% to 21% more profit for farmers

· 186 €/ha extra income (EU average 2007)

· €20.6 million overall direct increase in farm incomes EU-wide (2007)

4. The Committee has heard that local, seasonal, small-scale farming systems might be the best options for sustainable food production. How would GM crops fit into this model?

n Access to high quality seed has been shown to work for small and large scale farmers alike. Likewise, the Foresight report sets out how new technologies should not be dismissed a priori [7]   and also that there needs to be a diverse mix of agricultural systems in place to help meet future food demand.

n Large scale producers use GM, but as highlighted previously, 90 per cent of the farmers currently using the technology are resource-poor, small-scale farmers in the developing world. They choose GM for a variety of reasons, but primarily because GM crops can offer them a better return on investment. Different technologies are suitable for different settings but few end up being used in exactly the way that they are expected to be – farmers choose what works best for them based on experience in the field. The same would be applicable to different farm types in a country like the UK with its diverse mix of farming approaches.

n Farmers of all types continue to choose to use GM seeds, even if those seeds are sometimes more expensive, due to its greater overall economic benefit. If the economic case did not stack up, farmers would not use the technology.

n The European Commission has published recommendations on the guidelines applicable for the development of national co-existence measures, which regulate where and how GM crops can be used. In the UK, SCIMAC has been leading the way in describing how coexistence would work in this country. Co-existence has been shown to successfully work in both the case of conventional versus organic agriculture and in terms of newer technologies. These rules apply equally to larger and smaller scale production methods.

n It is ultimately for farmers and public policy makers to judge what type of cultivation is best for improving yield and food security. The use of GM and other technologies can play a role in achieving this regardless of farm type or size.

5. What is the level of public support or opposition for the technology in the UK and Europe?

n There remains a rigorous debate over the willingness of European consumers to purchase products containing GM ingredients. Attitudes vary considerably. For instance, in the UK 44 per cent of respondents to an EU survey (EU barometer 2010) indicated their support for the statement that "GM food should be encouraged", whereas in France the figure was 16% [8] .

n Several recent surveys have shown that the attitudes of UK consumers are becoming more open to the possibilities presented by GM food technologies (recent survey by the Institute of Grocery Distribution) [9] :

· 52% of UK consumers consider GM a means of tackling growing global food shortages (only 13% disagreed with this idea)

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

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

· On average, only 5% of consumers questioned expressed unprompted concern about GM food

n Consumers have not had the opportunity to express true choice over products containing GM ingredients due to the restrictive regulatory regime put in place by European decision makers. Despite this, the food supply chain is heavily reliant on GM ingredients such as soy for providing affordable meat that satisfies consumer demand.

n Regulators should base their decisions on the available scientific evidence and real world experience. Consumers will not be able to truly choose or make an informed judgement until they can vote with their wallets. Thought should also be given to communicating how the existing role of technologies such as GM are crucial for ensuring a stable and reliable global food supply system and the relevance of this to domestic consumers.

6. How well informed are the public about GM technology and what is the role of the Government in providing information on GM? What form should this education take?

n Like many types on new technology, GM and associated innovations that improve the reliability of the food chain are not easily understood by all. Consumers have a right to factual information on the role that GM and all other new forms of agricultural technology can, and currently do, play and their track record in other parts of the world.

n Although deciding on the Government’s role in this debate is entirely a matter for officials and elected representatives, there could be a case for a more active role for political leaders in providing unbiased information on the science that underpins agriculture and the food system. Easy-to-access information on the role of GM and other technologies in the food chain could help inform consumer choice.

n Technology companies would like to continue to provide real world examples of where GM is being used throughout the world to assist this process if desired.

7. Should the public have the final say in whether GM is allowed in the UK?

n Concern about rising food prices may galvanise support for investigating what needs to be done to overcome the challenge of ensuring a secure and affordable supply of food in the face of increasing population numbers and resource depletion. However, it relies on an effective regulatory regime which is not currently being operated correctly.

n Decisions on whether GM products can be imported into the UK are made at European Commission level, based on information reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority. The UK Government has some power over the decision to approve new import dossiers and products being assessed for cultivation in line with the majority voting system used in decision making by the EU. There is therefore a clear democratic link to decisions on whether GM is able to be imported for use in the supply chain, or indeed cultivated, but the UK’s ability to influence events reflects its status as one of a number of decision makers in the EU.

n It is for the UK Government to decide whether it should modify this arrangement. If based on a positive safety assessment by EFSA, a collective decision making process could be beneficial for streamlining the approvals process on a pan-EU basis, however the record shows that some countries remain implacably opposed to the use of the technology. This results in long delays for the approval of products for cultivation – only two commercialised products have resulted from this process, the latest taking 14 years to complete the process. Disagreement between member states on import dossiers is common.

Research funding and policy to support sustainable food systems

8. How is research currently coordinated to deliver sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems?

n The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK’s leading funder of academic research and training in non-clinical life sciences. Funding is focussed on three main areas: Food Security; bioenergy and industrial biotechnology; and basic bioscience. There is a recognition in the UK of the value of investing in research into new plant technologies, demonstrated by the £440m allocated to BBSRC in 2011/12 from the Government science budget. Institutes invest significant sums in research into new technologies, including GM, in the UK and overseas. In September 2011, for example, Defra gave the go ahead for Rothamsted Research to conduct a trial into aphid resistant GM wheat.

n Overseas too, there are many examples of successful public sector led research projects, including [1] :

n The agricultural biotechnology industry also invests significant sums in stand alone project and joint ventures with institutes such as Rothamsted Research, Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre, and the Universities of Leeds, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sheffield and Oxford, and research companies such as ADAS and NIAB.

n abc member companies are partners in a number of initiatives for resource poor farmers, including in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Such partnerships allow the benefits of this technology to be exploited in areas where no commercial business model exists. NGOs are increasingly involved in developing agricultural solutions to the problems affecting farmers; however many remain implacably opposed to the introduction of new technologies.

n The UK has successfully developed clusters of research expertise with biotech firms found in Oxford, Cambridge and Dundee, many of which are spin-offs from university research departments. This reflects the success that has been achieved in other sectors, such as healthcare technologies, where the UK has achieved significant SME growth and has attracted investment from global multinationals on the back of its scientific reputation.

n Research from the Rothamsted Institute found however that the UK is losing its expertise in applied sciences, with those employed in R&D reducing in number and increasing in age. There have been three significant closures of public research institutes in the UK associated with agriculture in the past decade. Long Ashton Research Station in 2003, Silsoe Research Institute in 2006 and the Hannah Research Institute in 2007. These closures have contributed to a decline in the domestic public agricultural research base.

9. What should be the goals for research into sustainable intensification? Should the focus be reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture? Increasing yields? How can these priorities be joined up?

n The Foresight Report sets out how ‘the global food supply will need to increase without the use of substantially more land and with diminishing impact on the environment: sustainable intensification is a necessity’ due to the high carbon emissions associated with land conversion. It is clear that public and private sector research must focus on how to improve yields on existing land, thereby reducing pressure to bring currently uncultivated areas under the plough.

n As set out above, public sector research institutes, alongside private companies, have a key role to play in targeting research at achieving this ambition. New technologies, such as GM, are part of the solution to the challenge but are not and should not be regarded as a ‘silver bullet’ able to solve all of the world’s food supply issues in isolation. Research must take a holistic approach aimed at identifying the range of measures that can be employed to help farmers become more productive. It is still the case, for example, that cereal yields in China are well below those achieved in western countries including the UK due in part to the need to improve farming practices.

n If a better system of regulation for GM is developed in Europe then there will be greater certainty for those investing in new crops focused on improved yields. This could also lead to larger joint public private sector projects where priorities can be harmonised.

10. What is the role of Government in directing and improving research into sustainable food and agriculture?

n The UK Government must ensure that it maintains existing investment levels in agricultural research as reflected in its current public spending commitments. This will provide certainty to public sector institutes at a time of severe pressure on taxpayer expenditure.

n Government departments also have a role to play in influencing where public sector research is targeted. For example, the UK Department for International Development is heavily involved in supporting agricultural projects in the developing world, through organisations such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. DFID also announced in February 2011 that it would be investing £25m into a project being carried out by Cornell University in the United States into developing crops resistant to stem rust in wheat [2] .

n Such publically funded research could have been carried out in the UK rather than the United States or Brazil. Government departments should use the conclusions of the Foresight Report as the impetus for ensuring that public sector led research at existing facilities in the UK is focused on improving yield and addressing the food security challenge.

n The UK Government also has a role to play in ensuring that barriers to market entry are reduced to encourage investment from the private sector in complimentary research. If there is greater investor certainty that research can potentially lead to commercial opportunities within the UK and Europe, then it is much more likely that funding will be forthcoming.

11. Some witnesses have suggested that agricultural research should not be left to private companies, as their priority is profit rather than the public good. How would you respond to this?

n As set out elsewhere in this submission, public sector research institutes – especially in the UK – play an important role in developing new crop technologies of all kinds. UK universities including the University of Leeds are involved in a number of projects looking at new technologies.

n Public private partnerships, in which companies work with the public sector and charities, are also crucial to developing technologies relevant to resource stressed or economically challenged parts of the world as the following example illustrates: [3]

n High R&D costs and a long, unpredictable and costly approval process mean that smaller companies and the public sector often cannot expose themselves to the financial risks inherent in developing GM products. A quicker approvals process based on science would help to diversify the research base.

n A large proportion of the GM technologies currently being used or which are in development are the result of investments by companies. These have brought economic and environmental benefits to farmers in both the developed and developing world over the past 15 years. Farmers would not use such crops without there being a significant incentive to do so.

n Private companies will continue to invest in new technologies that benefit farmers. Despite the restrictive nature of regulation in the EU there are examples of where companies have focused research on developing solutions which will be applicable for European agriculture (see BASF Fortuna potato example, above).

12. What is the role of publicly funded research in delivering sustainable food systems?

n Publically funded research has a crucial role to play in developing new technologies to help address some of the specific problems facing agriculture. As set out previously, projects are ongoing at the moment in UK institutes to help improve the sustainability of the food supply.

n There is enthusiasm in the private sector for working with the public sector on shared research projects. For example, collaboration between Dow AgroSciences and Rothamsted to produce new wheat types using technology for more efficiently generating targeted mutations in wheat, as a tool for plant breeding is currently ongoing.

n Again, however, such investment and partnership working is in part reliant on there being a path to market entry. The regulatory regime in Europe does not allow this to happen by restricting imports and cultivation.

The role of EU agricultural policy in directing and influencing research and solutions to sustainable food

13. How will / should CAP reform influence research and innovation in food production?

n As summarized by Paolo de Castro MEP, Chair of the EU Agriculture Committee, the challenge of reforming the CAP is for European Agriculture to ‘produce more, pollute less’. European farmers currently meet some of the highest standards in the world on food traceability, environmental protections and animal welfare. [4]  

n Yet, while the OECD-FAO Outlook sees the US, Canada, Australia, China, India, Russia and Latin America boosting farm output by 15-40 per cent between 2010 and 2019, it forecasts that EU production will grow by less than 4 per cent. [5] Europe therefore currently utilises over 30 million hectares (the size of Germany) outside its borders to meet its own needs.

n Unless CAP reform seeks to encourage agricultural innovations which increase yields whilst managing inputs, Europe will continue to be reliant on imports from countries with less stringent environmental standards. This will undermine attempts to ‘green’ the CAP. Likewise abc cannot support measures which would penalise productive farming.

n Abc welcomes key elements of the CAP reform set out by the European Commission which focus on encouraging Innovation Partnerships and agri-environment initiatives. However, CAP should be more specific in incentivising agricultural practices, sectors and technologies to ensure that reform will effectively contribute to the objectives of President Barroso’s EU 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

n In addition to extra investment in innovation by the European Commission, abc would therefore also welcome proposals to reform the regulatory environment to encourage greater private investment in GM technology.

14. How does EU GMO regulation influence research and innovation in food production?

n The current regulatory environment in Europe has had a negative effect on investment in research and development, with elements of the science base moving to emerging markets with fewer market entry barriers, thereby making European agriculture less and less competitive.

n Research into agricultural biotechnology started in Europe, but practical applications are now often developed elsewhere. Europe is in danger of both failing to turn the available scientific knowledge into commercial opportunities and, more importantly, failing to contribute to the global knowledge base required to meet the food supply challenge.

n Abc is of the view that the European regulatory approach should and must be based on science to inform the approval or otherwise of new technologies. This is not currently the case as political considerations take precedence when new technologies are considered.

15. Does the agricultural ‘vision’ painted by the EU and its member states drive agricultural policy and research in a direction which will encourage more sustainable agricultural practices? i.e. Is EU agricultural policy making EU agriculture more or less sustainable on the whole?

n The biggest barrier to investment in sustainable agriculture is not the CAP, nor the EFSA scientific approvals system, both of which function according to their remit and frameworks.

n Instead it is the delay to GM approvals caused by political decision making. This prevents farmers being able to access the technology and directs agricultural R&D investment away from Britain and Europe. The result is a limit on the potential contribution of UK science and farming towards mitigating the agricultural impact of climate change and increasing populations.

n The EU’s ‘vision’ for agricultural policy may be one of high environmental protection standards. Unfortunately, however, Europe is pushing its share of the responsibility for global food production onto farmers in other countries without realising any of the potential environmental benefits of GM crops.

16. To what extent could the UK act unilaterally in adopting or restricting the use of or importing GMOs?

To what extent could the UK act unilaterally in adopting or restricting the use of or importing GMOs?

n Under EU law, the UK currently has the power to allow the cultivation of GM products that are approved at a European Union level. However, neither of the two approved products currently commercialised are suitable for the UK agriculture market. MON810 – a genetically modified maize – is designed to protect the crop from the European Corn Borer, but this particular pest is not prevalent in the UK. Amflora is a genetically modified potato approved for use in industrial applications because it produces a more effective form of starch for certain processes. The UK lacks the industrial base which would benefit from the cultivation and subsequent processing of this product and hence its use is limited to mainland Europe. The cultivation of GM in the UK is currently reliant on the European Union process for approving new products that are awaiting assessment, some of which may be relevant and useful for UK farmers.

n As stated earlier in this submission, decisions on whether GM products can be imported into the UK are also made at European Union level, based on information reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority. The UK Government votes at both the Standing Committee of the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH) and at the Appeal Committee level on whether to approve or otherwise of the importation of GM products, in line with the normal comitology decision making process. The current system does not allow the UK to import non-EU approved products for food or feed use.

n The UK Government therefore has limited powers over the adoption or importation of GMOs. These powers are subject to the European Union decision making process in line with the UK’s obligations as a member state.

The answers contained within this document reflect the opinions of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council’s (abc).

abc, comprising of six member companies, work s with the food chain and research community to invest in a broad range of crop technologies – including conventional and advanced breeding techniques, such as GM.  These are designed to improve agricultural productivity by tackling challenges such as pests, diseases and changing climatic conditions , whilst reducing water usage, greenhouse gas emissions and other inputs. The companies are BASF, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer (DuPont) and Syngenta.

Further information is available at .

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

[2] Brookes, G & Barfoot P, (2011) PG Economics Ltd. GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2009,-profitable-and-productive-agriculture-continues-to-be-boosted-by-the-contribution-of-biotech-crops

[3] E.g. d aily_news/may/article20110505.html


[5] Survey by Markin for the Antama Foundation, ‘Bt maize seeds in Spain ', Nov 2010;

[6] ‘ GM crops: Reaping the benefits, but not in Europe ’ EuropaBio, May 2011,

[7] Government Office for Science, (January 2011), The Future of Food and Farming

[8] Eurobarometer survey ‘Europeans and biotechnology in 2010; Winds of change?’, European Commission, Oct 2010

[9] Genetically Modified Foods, IGD 2008,

[1] Academia Sinica: w /manage/gatenews/showsingle.php?_op=?rid:4043%26isEnglish:1



[4] The Future of CAP after 2013, COPA & COGECA, 2011

[5] OECD-FAO Agricultural Outloook 2011-12, OECD 2011,



[5] 9 December 2011

Prepared 18th January 2012