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
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
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.
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."
However, GM crops are widely grown in USA and Latin America. Professor
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.
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.
We were told that the UK imports substantial amounts of GM soya
now, which is used in the meat trade,
and that it was virtually impossible to obtain non-GM soya, which
was also more expensive.
The British Poultry Council told us that all the major retailers,
bar Waitrose, used genetically modified feed in poultry.
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
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%.
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.
In this way, GM products have similar objectives to those of organic
producers in reducing the need for pesticides and nitrogen-based
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.
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.
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.
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."
The NFU confirmed it supported new technologies such as GM and
that the consequences of not embracing GM were significant for
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
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, 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.
There are also individuals and groups
which are openly hostile to GM, for example GM Freeze,
and GeneWatch UK.
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."
Peter Melchett told us that there was an "inherent instability
and an inherent risk in GM technology"
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
[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.
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.
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.
ABC said that UK research institutes
were exporting their expertise on GM crops to other countries
because of the "disproportionate EU regulatory environment".
The Minister confirmed that there were delays at the EU level.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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
ABC (FSY 0025) para 4 Back
ABC (FSY 0025) para 3 Back
ABC (FSY 0025) para 7 Back
CLA (FSY 0043) para 4.5 Back
Germains Seed Technology (FSY 0008) Back
See paragraph 72 Back
ABC (FSY 0025) para 13 Back
GM Freeze (FSY 0032) Back
GeneWatch UK (FSY 0005) Back
Soil Association (FSY 0015) para 22 Back
Friends of the Earth (FSY 0036) para 36 Back
Ev19 ABC (FSY 0025) para 15 Back
AIC Ltd (FSY 0033) Back
AB Sugar, (FSY 0006) Back
Eating Better: for a fair, green, healthy future (FSY 0045) para
"EU ruling paves the way for GM farming in England,"
The Telegraph, 13 June 2014. Back