Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Novartis UK Ltd (F 49)


  1.1  Recent public interest about agricultural techniques, and in particular issues surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops and the use of pesticides, has heightened awareness about methods of crop and food production.

  1.2  Novartis welcomes this opportunity to respond to the Agriculture Committee's inquiry into organic farming. We are supportive of open debate about these issues and we firmly believe in providing a choice for farmers and consumers. As a manufacturer of crop protection agents, and a seed producer delivering both conventional, GM and organic seeds for agriculture, Novartis believes that all three systems, conventional, GM and organic do not need to be incompatible as long as a fair and consistent regulatory framework exists. For this reason, we are keen to see a regulatory environment based on fair comparisons and standards applied to all methods of crop production.

  1.3  This submission outlines our thoughts on how this choice can be achieved and how the development of appropriate regulation can promote it. We also comment on some of the environment, social and economic impacts of organic agriculture and describe how we see organic agriculture developing alongside other methods of agriculture, including those that employ modern biotechnology.

The Role of Novartis in Agriculture

  Novartis Agribusiness is one of the UK's largest supplier of crop protection products and seed varieties for farmers. It employs 17,000 people worldwide and 340 in the UK, based in seven locations.

  Novartis Seeds is one of Europe's foremost cereal plant breeders, the UK's main supplier of sugar beet seed and has a leading position in the breeding and supply of oilseed, maize, vegetable and flower varieties, including seeds for organic farmers in the UK and abroad.

  Novartis Crop Protection develops innovative technologies, products and services designed to deliver efficient solutions to agricultural production problems. It is a major supplier of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and seed treatment products.

  Novartis BCM, part of the Crop Protection sector, is one of the world's leading producers of beneficial insects and mites. It is a pioneer in the development of integrated pest management programmes, providing cost effective and sustainable solutions for insect and disease control.

  Novartis intends to spin-off and merge its crop protection and seeds business with Zeneca Agrochemicals to create "Syngenta", the world's largest dedicated agribusiness company. Completion of the merger is expected in the second half of this year.


  2.1  Novartis is clearly in favour of providing a choice for farmers in the methods they employ for crop production. We believe that, with a fair and appropriate regulatory framework in place, all methods of crop production, whether organic or otherwise, can progress side by side in the UK to give this choice.

  2.2  Similarly, Novartis supports the free and informed choice of consumers to buy the type of food they prefer, but again this choice should be based on fair and appropriate comparisons with food produced by other methods.

  2.3  To achieve this, it is essential to have in place consistent, verifiable and scientifically valid standards throughout the food chain. These standards should be applicable for conventional, organic and GM crops.

  2.4  Therefore, we believe that the same rules and regulations should apply to organic food production as for other methods of food production. This includes assessment and control of the risks to human health and the environment. Currently, many potential issues relation to organic agriculture are overlooked. All potential risks, such as levels of potentially harmful micro-organisms or pollution of waterways by organic fertilisers, should be evaluated so that consumers are able to make a fair and appropriate comparison with other crop production methods.

  2.5  Published claims about the benefits of organic food should also be subject to verification and be scientifically proven. Clearly, labelling regulations should reflect this.

  2.6  To avoid misleading consumers who are often paying a premium for organic produce, standards should be well-defined and this information made freely accessible. The unique feature of organic agriculture is the exclusion of almost all synthetic[29] inputs. However, some chemical treatments, such as copper-based fungicides, sulphuric acid, nicotine and sulphur are permitted by organic accreditation bodies. Additionally, exemptions are occasionally allowed when certain conditions threaten to destroy a whole crop.

  2.7  New practices in organic food production should be monitored in the same way as other methods of food production. This should take into account post-harvest treatment of crops, For example, techniques used to reduce pathogenic micro-organisms and their potentially toxic by-products should be fully evaluated.


  3.1  Novartis is a major investor is biotechnology research worldwide, across both our healthcare and agribusiness sectors. We believe that the responsible application of biotechnology has a significant contribution to make in the development of new medicines and environmentally sustainable options for modern agriculture.

  3.2  In the UK, Novartis Seeds is currently trialling varieties of sugar beet that have been genetically modified to be tolerant to an additional herbicide. This has the potential to improve crop management for farmers in terms of simplifying and reducing herbicide applications whilst maintaining or increasing yield. Research carried out last year in the UK showed that herbicide usage could be reduced by as much as 30 per cent.[30]

  3.3  We anticipate that agricultural biotechnology (GM crops) will become an integral part of crop management in a concerted evolution toward increased sustainability. It is a new technology geared towards improved solutions for crop protection and crop production. Coupled with other technologies, biotechnology provides new solutions for some of the old problems hindering sustainable development and the achievement of food security.

  3.4  Threshold values have been set by organic accreditation bodies to allow a certain amount of material from non-organic origin to be present in products classified as organic. However, similar threshold levels for adventitious GM content have yet to be established. Novartis believes this issue needs to be resolved swiftly, as 100 per cent purity levels are scientifically impossible to achieve in food production systems[31].


  4.1  For the reasons that follow, Novartis believes that the pressure of a predicted global population increase of 10 billion over the next four decades will prevent organic agriculture from becoming anything more than a niche market for the wealthiest consumers, now or in the future.

  4.2  Yields from organic production are often far less than from conventionally produced crops due to environmental and pest pressures. In order to maintain an acceptable income and to cover higher production costs, organic farmers demand substantially higher prices to compensate for lower yields. Obviously, this increases the cost of organic food to the consumer, whilst reducing the UK's overall food production output. If this were mirrored globally, an overall decrease in food production would reduce the total world food surplus, disrupt the continuity of food supply and ultimately result in price increases for the poorest consumers. Recently, one UK food retail chain announced its intentions to provide organic produce at no extra cost to its customers. As the cost of organic production is intrinsically higher, we believe that this position will have the effect of reducing profit margins for retailers and will therefore be unsustainable.

  4.3  Maintaining the same levels of global food production by organic methods would clearly require far more land to be farmed. Taking this into account, the rising demand for food from an increasing population would require even more land to come under the plough. As much of the world's arable land is currently threatened by factors such as soil erosion and salinisation, a large-scale conversion of agriculture to organic farming would see a massive reduction of existing natural habitats.


4.4  Bearing these factors in mind, we believe that a broad promotion of organic farming via heavily increased subsidies will not contribute to attaining a truly sustainable agricultural system.

  4.5  Crop protection products are still considered as minor input costs for the farmer. Yet they have a decisive effect on the output side: they secure the quantity and quality of the harvest, and therefore assure farmers a reasonable income. Only if yields and quality produce are secured, is the downstream food chain able to offer an affordable food supply.

  4.6  Because pests, weeds and disease will always be present and because for many of them efficient solutions are lacking in organic agriculture, Novartis believe that efficient agricultural production, with the optimised use of crop protection products included, will continuing to produce the bulk of the world's food.


  5.1  In a world trying to meet ever-increasing food demand without sacrificing additional land for agriculture, Novartis believes high-yield farming is the only realistic answer.

  5.2  As the best alternative to organic agriculture, Novartis favours sustainable agriculture through the concept of Integrated Crop Management (ICM) and Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This is a dynamic system, which makes full use of the latest research, technology, advice and experience. Its tools—which combine crop protection products, biotechnological solutions and practical crop management techniques—allow farmers to optimise the use of synthetic inputs, minimise waste and pollution, and maximise energy efficiency while producing abundant and high-quality food.[32]


  6.1  Organic agriculture is one option for farmers, but is not likely to become more than an alternative method for niche markets.

  6.2  Novartis believes that the same rules and regulations should apply to organic food production as for other methods of food production.

  6.3  With a fair and appropriate regulatory framework in place, we believe that all methods of crop production, whether organic or otherwise, can progress side by side in the UK to give farmers and consumers an informed choice.

29 June 2000

29   Synthetic here is understood as: formulated or manufactured by a chemical process, or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal or mineral sources. This term does not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes. Back

30   Dewar, A M (2000), Pest Management Science 56(4), 345Back

31   Memorandum by Novartis UK to the Agriculture Select Committee on Segregation of GM Foods, 8 October 1999. Back

32   Refer also to Less Intensive Farming and the Environment (LEAF). Funded by MAFF (project LE0132). Back

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