Select Committee on European Communities Second Report


Potential benefits and risks


65.  The potential benefits of the technology were described by Mr Galvin of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who said that "these products, if regulated properly, offer significant benefits in the form of reduced chemical use, improved yields, lower production costs and enhanced qualities for consumers and other end users" (Q 374). We set out below some of the ways in which the technology may be of assistance to farmers, industry, consumers, the environment and the developing world, although the benefits are mainly for future delivery.


66.  Whether by traditional breeding or by using genetic modification, the purpose of plant husbandry is to improve the quality of plants. One aspect of quality is yield and this has been the focus of the first commercial genetic modifications, partly due to the relative scientific simplicity of the modifications required. Monsanto claimed that genetic modification for herbicide tolerance and pest resistance (and now resistance to bacterial, fungal and viral diseases) resulted in fewer crop losses (pp 135-6). The yield improvement they identified was between 5 and 10 per cent. and this was backed up by the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales (NFU), who argued that production would cost less with, for example, reduced expenditure on herbicides and pesticides (pp 112-3). Genetic modification can be of particular help in cutting losses due to pests, where traditional breeding is impotent to develop resistance. As an example, nematode damage to the United Kingdom potato crop annually results in some £20 million of lost income and world-wide costs $60 billion. Some sources have estimated that insect damage annually results in crop losses of 13 per cent. world-wide[103]. The University of Leeds has found a rice gene that prevents nematodes from digesting their food and they are working on engineering it into other varieties of rice and other vegetables[104]. Another tactic for fighting disease is to insert marker genes into crops. These will enable farmers to identify disease at an early stage (for example, by producing a change in leaf colour or inducing fluorescence). Crops can also be made more resilient to the elements. For example, work is progressing on modifying crops to tolerate frost, partly through the use of genes found in fish (Professor Bainbridge, of the University of Teesside and chairman of the advisory committee on novel foods and processes, Q 681). In addition, the task of meeting future world food needs using existing technology may prove difficult (Zeneca, Q 59). The United Nations estimated the world population to number 5716 million in 1990 and 5768 million in 1996. Conversely, it calculates the world's arable area to be on the decline: from 1,381,983 thousand hectares in 1990 to 1,381,917 in 1996[105]. Any increase in food production must be achieved by means other than increasing the area of land under cultivation. Genetic modification is a technology which can assist with this (Professor James, of the Rowett Research Institute, Q 664).


67.  "Biotechnology is an enabling technology that facilitates the breeding of new crop varieties with enhanced value" according to the British Society of Plant Breeders (p 298). The current emphasis on herbicide and pest resistance may be short-lived, as the technology is available to make much greater changes to the characteristics of plants (Professor Burke, of the University of East Anglia and former chairman of the advisory committee on novel foods and processes (ACNFP) p 9). It is likely that the changes will attempt to add value to high volume, currently low value, crops by, for example, changing the properties of the oil produced in oil seed rape or soya. In addition, crops will be able to be modified to fit a particular purpose more specifically than can currently be achieved (Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Q 541). Changes in nutritional value and in perceived quality of foodstuffs are already being developed, for example high starch potatoes (which absorb less fat when fried) and better tasting fruit achieved by slower ripening (Institute of Arable Crops Research, p 355; Zeneca, Q 60). These modifications may well be attractive to consumers. It is likely that crop plants, as well as micro-organisms, will be modified so as to produce pharmaceuticals. Mr Galvin provided us with lists of such crops on the market in the United States or in development (p 175-81). An example is Laurical, a low-cost raw material for soaps.


68.  The Government is conducting a review through the Pesticides Safety Directorate to determine whether herbicide use will rise or fall following the introduction of GM crops and whether the use of broad-spectrum herbicides is better or worse than current practice (Mr Rooker, Q 603). Experience in the United States, however, has shown that GMOs can reduce reliance on chemical inputs. United Kingdom bodies have predicted that this should be the case here (NFU, p 106; Statutory nature conservation agencies[106] (SNCAs), p 319). Farmers are able to spray with less herbicide on fewer occasions. The broad-spectrum herbicides used with GMOs generally degrade faster in the soil and are arguably less damaging than cocktails of selective herbicides (HMG, Q 467), though the actual impact of broad-spectrum herbicides is currently under study. Pest resistant plants do not require spraying with pesticide against those pests to which they are resistant and so insects which do not attack the crop are not harmed, unlike a pesticide spray (Professor Williamson, of the University of York, Q 501; SNCAs, p 322). Novartis noted that pest resistant cotton had reduced pesticide use by up to two thirds (p 372). In the future, less fertiliser than is used at present may be necessary. The United Kingdom is leading research into nitrogen-fixing wheat[107], though a result is not expected for many years. In addition to there being less residue of such chemicals on the crop, the pollution of ground water is commensurately lowered. As less spraying is required, tractors have to pass over the field fewer times and so the soil suffers less compaction and damage to its structure. In the United States, where field sizes are larger than in Europe, this has also resulted in less soil erosion, the introduction of "no till" agriculture and the use of significantly less fuel. It is the financial saving from these reduced inputs which has attracted United States' farmers to the technology (American Soybean Association (ASA), p 294). In addition, every yield improvement to existing agricultural land potentially means that less biodiversity-rich land such as rainforest has to be brought into cultivation (Monsanto, pp 138-9 et seq.). A recent United Kingdom trial of herbicide tolerant sugar beet has demonstrated that it can stimulate insect populations. As the weeds can be allowed to grow for longer (up until they start to compete with the crop), the bare earth which normally surrounds sugar beet has been replaced by a mulch of dead and dying weeds, a better environment for insects while also conserving water and reducing soil erosion. The mulch further encourages pests away from the crop and onto the weeds[108].


69.  Both the NFU and Professor James (of the Rowett Research Institute and chairman of a United Nations commission on future food needs) considered that the developing world has much to gain from both conventional plant breeding and biotechnology (p 106; Q 664). Genetic modification could assist developing countries to increase their domestic food production by widening the climatic range in which a crop can be grown or by increasing salt or drought tolerance (NFU, p 102). Pest management could be achieved without costly chemical inputs and the large proportion of crops lost to pests post-harvest could be limited[109]. Slower ripening could assist transportability and shelf-life. Dr Chesson, of the Rowett Research Institute, considered that thought had to be given to such countries' needs: he suggested that increasing the degradability of rice straw fed to buffalo could have a greater impact on Indian nutrition than increasing the seed content of the rice (Q 666). The fundamental issue was, however, how developing countries could access the technology. In this respect, Dr Chesson has concerns in relation to intellectual property (Q 666). Additionally, cost alone could deny these crops to peasant farmers. Professor James and Dr Chesson suggested that the agro-chemical/seed companies should be encouraged to take on scientists from developing countries to work on projects relevant to the developing world which would not otherwise receive priority. Such research should be funded by public-private partnership as it would otherwise not produce an economic return (QQ 665-6). They urged the United Kingdom Government to increase their assistance to developing countries to help them use the intellectual assets of British science to their benefit. Professor James pointed to some examples of successful partnership in Tanzania, Thailand and India (Q 664).


70.  The revolution in agriculture since the second world war has seen many improvements in the availability, range, quality, safety and costs of food. It is argued that this has been at a significant cost in taste. The new technology aims to address the perceived loss of taste (Food and Drink Federation (FDF), p 332), by, for example, ensuring that fruit and vegetables are able to remain in the field longer. Zeneca's tomato is modified to ripen/rot slower, so it can remain on the vine for longer. This improves flavour as well as firmness and produces a "better" tomato paste (pp 22-4). Longer shelf-life and greater uniformity (particularly with respect to harvesting) should benefit the consumer through lower prices and, in the case of the tomato paste, already does: the modified version is sold for 20 per cent. less than the unmodified version[110] (Safeway, p 84). The technology will also make it easier to produce "convenience modifications", such as the seedless watermelon and tender-stemmed broccoli[111], which formerly could only be achieved by lengthy traditional breeding processes. Other benefits include healthier eating (through altered nutritional properties such as fat content) and reduced allergenicity (identifying those genes which cause allergic reactions in some consumers and removing or altering them). Work is in progress on a non-allergenic peanut (Professor Bainbridge, QQ 689-91). Lower levels of chemical residues, due to less spraying, will also result. There is however distinct consumer uneasiness at the introduction of the technology, noted by the Consumers in Europe Group (p 307) and the Consumers' Association (CA) (p 50). Professor Durant, of the Science Museum and Imperial College, London, considered that public confidence in the technology would best be secured by producing foods with "clear and demonstrable consumer benefits" (p 313). The Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr Rooker) agreed and vigorously stated that the onus was on the biotechnology industry to develop products with tangible benefits (Q 604). United Biscuits argued that more products like the tomato paste with price, quality and taste advantages would assist consumer acceptance (Q 577). Professor Bainbridge suggested however that the majority of products which would be presented for assessment in the next few years would be commodity crops (Q 717), as this was the limit of the technology at the time of development. (See also paragraphs 118 to 124 and 128 to 145.)


71.  Plant varieties are already selected for particular industrial purposes. Genetic modification can be used to increase the efficiency of production of chemicals already extracted from plants by causing their "over expression"[112]. The high starch potato, engineered by the University of Oxford, is grown not for food use but for its starch[113]. Zeneca is developing a paper pulp tree with modified lignin to help produce paper using less energy and bleach (p 178). Plants (or more likely, micro-organisms used in containment (as with insulin)) can be modified to produce chemicals which they did not previously. Agriculture will change significantly as it responds to the new products which can be engineered into plants. Crops grown primarily for fuel (NFU, pp 112-3), for the manufacture of biodegradable plastics, pharmaceuticals and chemical raw materials are all possible. Monsanto has developed a blue cotton which much reduces the need to dye the product. Genes which produce proteins able to break down major pollutants into their component, non-toxic units may be useful on heavily polluted land (SNCAs, p 319). Plants which assist environmental clean-up are already in production, such as those which extract metals from the soil, useful for example for the reclamation of land contaminated by heavy industry.

72.  We consider that biotechnology in general and genetic modification in particular offer great potential benefits to agriculture, industry, consumers and even to the environment. The fruits of the technology should be available to our farmers, manufacturers and consumers. These developments have to be surrounded by an assessment of risk (and, where necessary, its management), to which we now turn.

103  Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council "In-gene-ious" exhibition. Back
104  Centre for plant breeding and biotechnology, referred to in BBSRC business, July 1998, p 19.  Back
105  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Yearbook on Production for 1997, Rome 1998. Back
106  English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage, Countryside Council for Wales and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Back
107  A national research centre has been established at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.  Back
108  The Monsanto Roundup tolerant sugar beet underwent trials in Cambridgeshire. It has yet to be assessed as a commercial proposition. Back
109  The Department for International Development is funding research into worms which attack rice.  Back
110  The modified version is on sale in a larger tin (170g) for the same price as the unmodified variety (142g). Back
111  Both are the result of traditional breeding. Back
112  The switch which determines expression of a gene may be modified to increase the amount of protein produced beyond that which normally occurs - "over-expression". Back
113  Starch is a significant industrial chemical, used, for example, in food production; medicine solubility; biodegradable plastics; packaging; and as a substitute for petrol based chemicals in paints. Back

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