Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC) (A36)


  SCIMAC welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry into the future of UK agriculture.

  SCIMAC represents a broad base of membership along the UK farm supply chain:

    —  National Farmers Union

    —  British Society of Plant Breeders

    —  Crop Protection Association

    —  UK Agricultural Supply Trade Association.

    —  British Sugar Beet Seed Producers Association

  As detailed in the attached explanatory memorandum (see Annex), the primary focus of SCIMAC's activity is to support the open and responsible introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in the UK through the development of an independently audited programme of industry stewardship.

  SCIMAC member organisations share a commitment to ensuring UK adoption of GM crop technology is carefully managed, identifies closely with public opinion, and delivers a meaningful choice for farmers, the food industry and consumers.

  Consensus within SCIMAC is based on a shared conviction that access to new technology has been, and will remain, fundamental to the future well-being of UK agriculture—not only in terms of the industry's economic competitiveness and the marketability of its products, but also in terms of farmers' ability to protect and enhance the British countryside and environment.

  Adoption of GM crops in other parts of the world has increased significantly in recent years. An estimated 110 million acres of GM crops were sown in 2001—a 25-fold increase compared with five years ago. The reasons cited by farmers for this rapid uptake include increased yields, savings in chemical inputs, labour and fuel, reduced cultivations, and greater ease and flexibility of management.

  The Committee has specifically invited views on the challenges facing UK agriculture as a result of possible reductions in production-based support and the further dismantling of barriers to international trade. Such developments will inevitably expose UK agriculture to even greater competitive pressures. It is therefore essential that British farmers enjoy fair and equitable access to the scientific and technological advances already enjoyed by producers in other parts of the world.

  The current generation of GM crops offer potential improvements in productivity, cost efficiency and environmental performance. Faced with the prospect of reduced production subsidies, and/or a switch of support into the delivery of specific environmental objectives, access to GM crop technology may have a significant role to play in fostering a viable and sustainable future for British agriculture.

  In considering the future for UK agriculture beyond subsidies, SCIMAC therefore urges the Committee to consider fully how new technologies, including biotechnology, can contribute to British farmers' ability to produce sufficient quantities of safe, high quality crops for food, feed and non-food uses, cost-effectively and in sympathy with the environment.

  Specific case studies are perhaps the most effective way to illustrate how fair and equitable access to new technology—in a future with or without subsidies—can help British farmers compete effectively on domestic and international markets, and also deliver continued environmental improvements.

  The following examples demonstrate how current applications of GM crop technology, in this case introducing new types of herbicide tolerance, can provide increased flexibility and ease of management for growers, and directly support the use of integrated farming systems which combine both economic and environmental objectives:


  Sugar beet is a highly valuable crop, but very susceptible to weed competition. A weedy beet crop may produce no harvestable roots at all.

  Currently, farmers therefore spray conventional beet crops several times during the growing season, using mixtures of selective herbicides to control weeds. Most commonly used herbicides for beet crops contain residual or soil-acting compounds, which remain active in the soil. To be effective, such herbicides must be used before the weeds emerge or when they are very small, so beet crops contain very few weeds early in the season.

  The GM beet crop allows farmers to maintain or enhance productivity while controlling weeds with fewer applications, using less herbicide, avoiding residual types, and reducing the overall cost of weed control.

  Perhaps more significantly, the introduction of this new type of herbicide tolerance allows greater flexibility in the timing and targeting of weed control. This may bring a change in approach to weed control for the commercial beet grower, from his current objective of eliminating weeds from an early stage in the season, to a programme of later weed control. This could allow more weeds early in the season, as an important food source for wildlife and a habitat for insects. In addition, this new type of herbicide tolerance allows for more flexible and innovative approaches to the targeting of weed control in the field. UK trials have already pointed to the success of band spraying in glyphosate-tolerant GM beet to combine both economic and environmental objectives as part of commercial beet production. Band spraying essentially involves targeting weed control immediately over the beet crop rows, leaving corridors of weeds between the rows throughout the growing season as a food source and habitat for wildlife which does not compete with the growing crop.


  Initial trials have taken place in the UK to investigate the potential for herbicide tolerant GM maize to optimise herbicide use and reduce nitrate pollution of watercourses on dairy farms.

  Genetic modification has enabled plant breeders to develop crop varieties with a new type of herbicide tolerance—in this case forage maize has been bred to tolerate the non-selective, rapidly biodegradable herbicide glufosinate ammonium. This offers farming and environmental advantages by reducing the number of herbicides and applications required, and by minimising the use of persistent herbicides with residual activity in the soil.

  In addition, it may enable farmers to adopt specific management practices offering further benefits for the environment and biodiversity. For example, forage maize is commonly grown in continuous rotation by dairy farmers and ensiled to provide a source of winter forage. Once harvested in September/October, the maize site is left bare. This has been identified as a potential source of nitrate pollution through leaching over the winter months.

  One solution may be to establish a winter cover crop within growing maize to provide a further source of winter/spring fodder and to "mop up" nitrates. Current methods of weed control in maize are based on use of persistent herbicides. This effectively prevents undersowing of any cover crop with the possible exception of the most hardy ryegrass varieties.

  GMHT maize allows undersowing. In trials, the standing maize crop was treated with glufosinate ammonium at the critical growth stage, then immediately undersown using a cereal drill. Such an approach is considered practicable until early July.

  Drawing on the advice of ecologists, individual trial crops were undersown separately with stubble turnips and grass ley mixtures both with and without clover. In all cases, excellent germination was achieved, and healthy crops established to provide winter cover once the maize had been harvested.

  While still at a concept stage, this application of GHMT crop technology provides a practical example of how emerging technologies can be managed in specific ways to deliver a win:win scenario for farmers and the environment.

  However, the effective contribution of emerging technologies to a sustainable future for British agriculture will depend on the existence of a regulatory framework which enables, not disables, future progress and innovation. Controls must be science-based, and focused on the overriding regulatory objectives of delivering safety and choice for all.

  Once safety and choice have been addressed where the use of new technology is concerned, issues of public or consumer acceptance are the preserve of commercial and market forces, not the responsibility or concern of regulators.

  Furthermore, consumer demands and priorities are continually changing, and regulations must be sufficiently flexible to support a rapid response by industry to meet those demands.

  It is, however, the responsibility of regulators to provide clear, transparent and unequivocal public information about the regulatory processes, and to ensure the public communication of risk, whether in relation to human health, food, feed or environmental safety, is accurate and proportionate. This is imperative to strengthen public confidence in the regulations, which address these issues, and the science behind them.

  Within British agriculture, arrangements must also be in place to underpin access and choice to the benefits of emerging technologies, at the same time promoting co-existence between all legitimate production systems.

  While the issue of safety is not in question, SCIMAC respects the views and considerations of those who—on commercial, ethical, religious or purely personal grounds—actively wish to avoid certain approaches to agriculture. That is their choice. However, SCIMAC is also firmly of the view that no legitimate sector of agricultural activity has a right of veto over another.

  The SCIMAC stewardship programme, endorsed by the UK Government in May 1999, was established to support the effective integration of GM crop technology alongside existing forms and systems of agriculture. Like the proven system for growing certified seed crops, it requires the GM crop grower to follow specific management regimes, to consult with neighbouring farmers, and at all times to preserve the identity and integrity of the GM crop.

  Through this process of mutual co-existence, farmers as well as consumers can exercise a choice.

  The issue of co-existence is critical to the ability of Britain's farmers to access and exploit all legitimate approaches to crop production. As has been highlighted in this document, current applications of GM crop technology may have a direct bearing on British farmers' ability to meet future priorities and objectives, and for which solutions may not be possible using currently available technology.

  Future applications of GM crop technology may not have been considered in detail in this submission. Genetic modification is a tool, not an end in itself. As such, it offers significant potential to extend the scope, accuracy and potential of crop development and improvement. Whether its application is directed towards improvements in agricultural performance, food quality and nutrition, or the field-based production of renewable fuel, fibre, industrial products or even high value pharmaceuticals, will be determined by future market demands.

  However, the Government does have an important role which it should not neglect. Government has to operate the regulatory system for the release of GM crops and foodstuffs and should ensure that consumers have full access to that system and a full explanation of the basis on which it works. Provided Government fulfils this role SCIMAC believes that its members, working together, can deliver a technology which increases choice for farmers, the food chain and consumers and contributes to a viable and sustainable future for British agriculture.


14 December 2001

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