Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents


7  Genetically modified food

113. As noted in the previous chapter, the challenge of increasing production in a sustainable manner can be assisted by scientific advances and new technologies. One of these is Genetic Modification (GM) which is the focus of this chapter.

What is GM?

114. Genetically modified foods have had specific changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering. Usually, and distinct from conventional breeding, one specific desirable trait is added to or replaced in their genetic makeup. This allows for greater control and precision over a food's genetic structure than previously afforded by methods such as selective breeding and mutation breeding.

115. To date most genetic modifications of foods have primarily focused on cash crops in high demand by farmers such as soybean, maize, oilseed rape and cotton seed. These have been engineered for resistance to pathogens and herbicides and better nutrient profiles. Research has therefore tended to focus on increasing productivity through reducing the cost of production rather than modification to enhance the intrinsic yield of crops.

116. We discussed specific examples of GM research with scientists at Rothamsted Institute. One research project has sought to produce omega-3 fish oils in GM Camelina plants in order to provide a sustainable supply of omega-3 fish oils which are beneficial for our health.[142] We were also shown images of wheat plants which had been modified to repel aphids, thus reducing the need for pesticides. Neither of these plants was commercially available at present.

117. Within the EU the Minister told us only one GM crop had been licensed for use in 1998, and another was in the pipeline, but because of political disagreement, "they [GM crops] were not used at all, at the moment."[143] However, GM crops are widely grown in USA and Latin America. Professor Beddington said:

    Brazil is the obvious country to look at, because they produce a very substantial amount of soya protein, primarily for animal consumption. Most of that is now GM; there is a tiny amount of non-GM soya being produced, to the extent that it is very hard to even find it, because the GM technology for soya is enormously economically attractive. The fact that non-GM product has some price premium is of indifference to the farmers that are actually producing it.[144]

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications' (ISAAA) statistics show that global adoption of GM crops reached 170 million hectares in 2012, an increase in 10 million hectares from the previous year.[145] We were told that the UK imports substantial amounts of GM soya now, which is used in the meat trade,[146] and that it was virtually impossible to obtain non-GM soya, which was also more expensive.[147] The British Poultry Council told us that all the major retailers, bar Waitrose, used genetically modified feed in poultry.[148]

Potential benefits

118. The Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) argues that GM crops can increase yields without the use of harmful chemicals:

    Agricultural biotechnologies, including GM, are one of many ways we can improve yields. GM crops enable farmers to produce more food on the same amount of land, offering the potential for increased yields of between 6% and 30%, whilst also allowing farmers to grow their crops more sustainably. Biotech crops can help farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to less tillage, whilst also reducing the use of pesticides and protecting biodiversity.[149]

It reported that Romania was producing herbicide-tolerant GM soya before joining the EU. This accounted for nearly 70% of all soybeans planted in the country (about 137,000 ha). On accession to the EU in 2007, Romania had to stop growing GM soya and yields have fallen by 30%.[150] The CLA pointed out that further research from the ISAAA concluded that GM crops saved the equivalent of 473 million kilograms of pesticides in 2011 and reduced GHG emissions by 23 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide-equivalent.[151] In this way, GM products have similar objectives to those of organic producers in reducing the need for pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilisers.

119. Germains Seed Technology commented that GM technology can offer many benefits to productivity models and enhanced food quality including:

·  Disease resistant crops which reduce the need for recourse to broadcast crop protection product use and reduce the pesticide impact on the environment;

·  Nutritional traits may reduce the need for an extensive production model, delivering more nutrition with less food stock and land use; and

·  Stress resistance to drought or reduced irrigation strategies, or adverse climatic conditions.[152]

120. Dr Little told us that in the US farmers grew organic crops side by side with GM crops with no evidence of cross contamination. In the UK, a body called SCIMAC was set up in 1998 to explore co-existence arrangements between GM and non-GM crops.[153] However, we would be interested to learn if there was any research comparing yields and inputs between GM and organic production, and whether the Government has assessed the potential impact of growing GM crops on the market for organic products.[154]

121. ABC told us that "UK farmers were united in their desire to grow GM crops because of the potential to increase yields and disease resistance."[155] The NFU confirmed it supported new technologies such as GM and that the consequences of not embracing GM were significant for the UK:

    NFU policy is that we are in favour of new technology. We believe that GM will be one of the solutions, not the only solution. Our concern is that there are so many new plant-breeding techniques that we may find we are rejecting some other, new developments of traits. […]In 1989, 33% of the big seed plant companies' R and D spend occurred in Europe. Today, they spend €7 billion, and only 7% of it is spent in Europe. The rest is being spent round the world, where there is an interest and a hunger in having that technology. We are rapidly turning people away from making the investments here. The UK used to export agriculture solutions to the world. We are now shifting that to other people.[156]

122. Despite comments by the Soil Association that we could not know whether GM products were leading to diet related ill-health in the USA because there had been no research on this,[157] the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) notes that, after over fifteen years of cultivation, there is no compelling evidence of any greater risk to humans, animals or the environment from GM crops than that associated with conventional crops.

Obstacles to greater uptake

123. Despite this, it is clear that there are obstacles to the greater us of GM foods in the UK and the EU. There is a fair amount of public ambiguity about GM arising from both misunderstanding about the science and a lack of awareness of the extent of GM crops already used in the production of our food. Tom Taylor of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board told us:

    Supermarkets and retailers have concerns about what the public perception of this is. I think that that partly goes back to the fact that this has not been simply explained to people. I am not having a pop at the retailers for that, because I can understand where they are. Collectively, we do have to demystify this, to make sure that people are not frightened about GM and we can use it sensibly.[158]

There are also individuals and groups which are openly hostile to GM, for example GM Freeze,[159] and GeneWatch UK.[160] Opponents have objected to GM foods on several grounds, including public health, environmental impacts, ethical concerns about placing animal genes in plants (transgenics), and economic concerns raised by the fact that GM technology has largely been developed, and is owned, by large multinational corporations.

124. The Soil Association argued that GM crops lock farmers into buying costly seeds and herbicides which generate tolerance in those strains of weeds which initially exhibited some resistance. It said GM was "the product of a narrow, top-down approach driven not by the needs of farmers, consumers or the environment, but of seed and chemical companies."[161] Peter Melchett told us that there was an "inherent instability and an inherent risk in GM technology"[162] which did not apply to other types of technology which might achieve the same ends.

125. Friends of the Earth said that GM crops modified to be resistant to insect pests and tolerant to herbicides, have resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of chemicals to deal with weeds that develop resistance to the chemicals over time. However it supported some new advanced plant breeding techniques:

    [which] allow traditional plant breeding to be speeded-up, including marker-assisted genetic selection. [..]As long as issues of risk, rights and farmer control were satisfied, we would support research into some types of GM crops that could not be achieved through conventional breeding approaches, such as nitrogen-fixing wheat or rice that uses a more efficient type of photosynthesis.[163]

126. The Secretary of State has said he is supportive of GM technology and its potential benefits for the UK and for developing countries. Mr Eustice acknowledged that there was public concern about the use of GM technologies for crop production as well as about the consumption of GM foods.[164]

THE EU REGULATORY PROCESS

127. We have already criticised the EU regulatory framework which has prevented greater use of GM technology. The ABC pointed out that the EU had one of the world's strictest approval procedures for GM products:

    Once the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has made its extensive scientific risk assessment, progress is hampered by a politicised secondary decision-making phase administered by the European Commission and involving the Member States. This was acknowledged in the recent decision by the European Court of Justice when it ruled that the European Commission must stick to the legally prescribed processes and cannot misuse bureaucratic processes to delay the authorisation of a regulated product, requiring the Commission to put forward the GM maize 1507 dossier for a vote in the Council. This followed a substantial delay in the process for a product which had been found to be fully safe, with seven positive EFSA safety opinions published on the product since its submission for approval 12 years ago.[165]

ABC said that UK research institutes were exporting their expertise on GM crops to other countries because of the "disproportionate EU regulatory environment".[166] The Minister confirmed that there were delays at the EU level. He said:

    until very recently, there was only one GM crop that was licensed for use in the European Union. We have always suffered in the European Union, frankly, from a lot of political disagreement about whether or not we should allow the planting of GM crops in the European Union. Different countries have taken very different views, and that is why it has been very difficult to get any progress.[167]

Breaking the deadlock

128. AB Sugar suggested that the Government could help change the public perception of GM foods by "seeking to move the public debate away from viewing GM as a 'blanket technology', and instead focus on the benefits it can bring society in specific applications."[168]

129. The Minister told us there might be a way forward in the EU. He said:

    Countries like Germany, who themselves are very reluctant politically to allow GM crops, have signalled that they may live with the fact that, at a European level, these crops could be licensed, provided there could be some sort of national derogation that allowed them to prevent them being grown in their own country. It may be that, in order to get some progress in this issue, it would be possible to have agreement for these crops at a European level, but with member states having the ability to have a derogation from that. That might be one possible way forward, and I think that is a more likely way forward than us unilaterally licensing them and growing them.[169]

130. As part of the effort to move forward on GM, the EU passed new legislation for animal feed in July 2011, referred to as the 'technical solution'. This is designed to allow GM material currently unauthorised in the European Union, to make up to 0.1% of imports, provided it has been submitted to EFSA for review and been approved by one other food safety authority in another non-EU country. The legislation was introduced to address the problem of asynchronous authorisations, whereby new GM traits are fully approved in certain countries and not in others.[170] More recently a vote in the Agricultural Council will allow two strains of maize resistant to a particular weedkiller to be grown in member states if they wish. This Council decision has to be approved by the European Parliament. The Secretary of State is reported to have said that "this is a real step forward in unblocking the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops which is letting down farmers and stopping scientific development."[171]

131. The technology involved in the production of genetically modified crops generates public concern. In particular there are concerns that there may be unknown implications of this technology. In relation to the consumption of GM foods many people in other countries, and a large percentage of our poultry and livestock, consume GM products with no known or documented ill-effects. This should offer some reassurance to the wary. In terms of concerns about the production of GM crops, the EU process for approval of such crops is, as noted, extremely rigorous, and appropriate regulations can be put in place to guard against cross-contamination.

132. The Government should do more to inform the public about the potential beneficial impacts of growing GM crops in the UK. It should encourage an evidence-led public debate about GM crops and also counter food safety fears about the consumption of GM. In order to give consumers the opportunity to make informed choices, GM foods should be labelled as such, in the same way as organic produce. The Government must continue to work within the EU to argue for a system which is more flexible for those member states that wish to take advantage of GM technology, while still ensuring that all EU consumers are protected, in the same way it does with non-GM technologies. Progress towards this objective must be research and science-led. The Government must also ensure that any GM products grown legitimately in any member state may be freely traded across the EU.


142   Rothamsted research, Making omega-3 fish oils in GM Camelina plants. Back

143   Q362 Back

144   Q80 Back

145   ABC (FSY 0025) para 4 Back

146   Q80 Back

147   Q127 Back

148   Q126 Back

149   ABC (FSY 0025) para 3 Back

150   ABC (FSY 0025) para 7 Back

151   CLA (FSY 0043) para 4.5 Back

152   Germains Seed Technology (FSY 0008)  Back

153   Qq170-171 Back

154   See paragraph 72 Back

155   ABC (FSY 0025) para 13 Back

156   Q127 Back

157   Q208 Back

158   Q128 Back

159   GM Freeze (FSY 0032)  Back

160   GeneWatch UK (FSY 0005)  Back

161   Soil Association (FSY 0015) para 22 Back

162   Q205 Back

163   Friends of the Earth (FSY 0036) para 36 Back

164   Qq298,321 Back

165   Ev19 ABC (FSY 0025) para 15 Back

166   AIC Ltd (FSY 0033)  Back

167   Q322 Back

168   AB Sugar, (FSY 0006) Back

169   Q222 Back

170   Eating Better: for a fair, green, healthy future (FSY 0045) para 9 Back

171   "EU ruling paves the way for GM farming in England," The Telegraph, 13 June 2014. Back


 
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Prepared 1 July 2014