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Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Memorandum by British Society of Plant Breeders Limited

  1. BSPB Ltd represents the interests of plant breeders covering all farm crops (except sugar beet), vegetables and some ornamentals. The society's principal vote is to licence and collect plant variety royalties. In 1996-97 the society collected and disbursed £24.7 million royalty income.

  2. Biotechnology plays a vital role in many of the society's members research programmes. It is an enabling technology that facilitates the breeding of new crop varieties which enhanced value to agriculture. Such improvements include resistance to pests and diseases, and increased yields and better nutritional characteristics.

  3. Biotechnology will allow plant breeders to continue to have a beneficial impact on agriculture, horticulture and the environment. The technology has value for developed agricultural systems like Europe and the UK (and North America) as well as potential to help the development of sustainable agricultural systems in other parts of the world. The long term export potential for British breeders will be enormous.

  4. The first products developed from the use of this technology are based on changes controlled by single gene traits (herbicide tolerance, insect resistance). In time more complex gene combinations will be obtainable with even higher added value for the plant breeding industry and UK agriculture.

  5. The committee should be aware of the UK's influential role in developing and implementing regulations covering this technology. The regulations are science based, have been carefully considered and sensibly introduced. The UK example has been used as a template by other countries outside Europe. In contrast, the European system has not been successful being prone to indecision and political interference with little leadership apparent.

  6. Regulatory uncertainty is a significant problem in plant breeding because of the lengthy timescales involved in producing novel varieties. This uncertainty leads to a negative climate, notably on consumer perceptions of the new technology.

  7. In addition the European regulations have not kept pace with the technology. As an example the European Novel Food Regulation became law in 1997 after almost a decade of debate. There are still no EU labelling guidelines for genetically modified food.

  8. The lack of leadership by the EU leads to increased costs and delays in variety development. In the decision making process in developing new varieties the cost of regulatory approval and the schedule for achieving this status are key factors. At the moment it is not possible to estimate these factors of cost and timing. A good example is the gm tomato paste which has yet to be approved in the EU despite UK approval in January 1995. There is still no regulatory approval to grow and process these gm tomatoes in the EU. This position is in stark contrast to North America where approvals take around six months.

  9. These uncertainties feedback into the industries involved. These adversely affect SMEs with the net effect that the European entrepreneurial position is weaker then in North America. This in turn discourages investment.

  10. This climate of confusion undermines public confidence in the technology which leads to a feedback affect on the regulators which again produces a downward spiral. Without clear leadership the position will get worse with potentially damaging consequences for UK plant breeders.

  11. International trade in gm plants and seeds will be affected, with trade disputes the likely consequence of inadequate harmonisation of the regulatory process.

  12. The science base of the regulations must not be compromised. The principles of risk assessment are sound and our politicians and leaders must respect the independent advice given by our scientific community. The risk assessment approach should not be expected to give political, sociological or ethical decisions an undeserved credibility.

  13. The only valid approach to a risk assessment on biotechnology in plant breeding for agriculture is based on a case by case approach. Each crop species and novel trait should be examined independently. It is misleading to decision makers and consumers to be told that the risks posed by different crop plants are the same—it is equally unhelpful to assert that all applications are dangerous or safe!

  14. The overall effect of this lack of clarity and unpredictable planning will have serious long term effects on Europe's competitive position.

5 June 1998

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