REPORT OF THE BIOTECHNOLOGY WORKING GROUP
Presented to NFU Council
The potential benefits of the application of
biotechnology to UK agriculture and horticulture are outlined.
Some concerns about the technology are given, and suggestions
for future action are made.
Biotechnology provides additional opportunities
to adapt to the pressure for change. It cannot solve all our problems,
but can play an important and innovative role in maintaining the
competitiveness of UK agriculture and horticulture. Biotechnological
innovations have the potential to make farming and growing more
effective by maximising potential yields, improving the consistency,
nutritional content and quality of crops, and by reducing pesticide
and herbicide use. Other benefits relate to the development of
perennial crops, crops that can fix nitrogen, and plants that
are more resistant to disease, cold, drought, salinity, and higher
temperatures. Manipulation of features of plants that control
flowering, germination, photoperiodism, growth, and shade avoidance,
should also give benefits.
Genetic modifications that are sensitive to
local farming conditions may also provide a means of increasing
the reliability of food production in underdeveloped and developing
countries in response to an increasing world population. Bioremediation
of polluted soils, and similar developments could also prove to
be beneficial. It should be emphasised that the modifications
required to obtain the benefits referred to in this paragraph
would be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by conventional
In animals the use of genetic markers for breeding
purposes is likely to improve animal welfare. This will be by
breeding animals that are more resistant to disease and parasites,
and have improved reproductive efficiency. Further potential benefits
include parentage verification, and identification of traits for
high feed conversion efficiency and improved carcass quality and
meat purity. The use of transgenic animals for the production
of pharmaceutical products and possibly as a source of organs
for humans (xenotransplantation) are other benefits.
The recognised risks of the introduction of
biotechnology into farming are considered by most observers to
be low. However, there are some concerns. The first relates to
the use of antibiotic resistant marker genes in genetically modified
crops. The likelihood of gene expression is determined by the
type of DNA promoter sequence that is associated with the marker
gene. It is possible that specific antibiotic resistance could
be transferred to livestock and to humans. While this risk is
considered to be very small the NFU has a policy that discourages
the use of such genes. They are unacceptable to many consumers
and alternative marker genes are available.
Other concerns are environmental and relate
to the integrity of the food chain. For example, there is the
possibility that resistance to a variety of herbicides could become
transferred to and aggregated into a weed species so that it becomes
difficult to control. There is also the possibility that the use
of herbicide tolerant crops, and ones that contain a built-in
pesticide, could reduce the number of insects so that predatory
species, ranging from other insects to birds and mammals, may
be reduced in numbers. Resistance to in-built pesticides may also
develop in insects, so reducing the availability of effective
pesticides. Because of these environmental uncertainties the NFU
recommends that a 10 year monitoring period be instituted when
a specific genetically modified crop is commercially grown in
the UK for the first time. The results of the monitoring programme
should be in the public domain, and should form the basis for
continued registration of the genetically modified crop.
Animal welfare concerns have centred on the
rapid development of reproductive manipulation methods. For example,
the excessive size of animals at birth produced by in vitro
reproductive methods, including cloning, certainly has negative
animal welfare implications. A further welfare concern with cloning
is the risk related to the potential vertical transmission of
disease from donor to cloned offspring and surrogate mother (e.g.,
bovine viral diarrhoea).
The NFU has a policy that genetically modified
crops should be segregated when grown in the UK so that traceability
and appropriate labelling is possible. However, experience gained
in segregating the Canadian canola crop in 1996, and detailed
consideration of the practicalities of such practices suggest
that complete segregation is difficult to achieve and can be costly.
Labelling would enable consumers to choose whether or not they
wish to eat a food that contains material derived from genetically
modified crops. Codes of practice, developed by the NFU, in association
with the British Society of Plant Breeders and the United Kingdom
Agricultural Supply Trade Association, aim to ensure that GM crops
grown in the UK are segregated throughout the food chain so that
they can be appropriately labelled to allow consumer choice.
The importation of unsegregated genetically
modified crops such as soya and maize have provided UK consumers
with little choice. While there is no simple answer to this problem,
the Institute of Grocery Distribution, supported by the NFU and
other groups, has produced voluntary labelling guidelines for
foods derived from genetically modified constituents. These were
introduced for genetically modified soya and maize in 1998. It
is likely that all foods which contain such products will have
to be labelled in the future. However, labelling is unlikely to
be required for foods that do not contain the genetic material
(DNA) in its native state (e.g., oils, sugar, etc.). Because of
discrepancies between the United States and Europe it has become
obvious that internationally agreed regulations to control the
introduction of biotechnological innovations into farming are
urgently required. The NFU fully supports attempts to harmonise
regulations at European and international levels.
The NFU is sensitive to the concerns of undeveloped
and developing countries on the possible exploitation by multinational
companies of products derived from their naturally occurring flora
and fauna. The NFU supports attempts to develop and harmonise
international legislation in this area.
Following many years of negotiation a revised
draft of the EC Directive for the Legal Protection of Biotechnological
Inventions, which aims to harmonise intellectual property laws
in the EU member states, appears likely to become law in the near
future. The NFU has been one of the groups who have been instrumental
in ensuring that clauses are included in the Directive that should
protect farmer's right with regard to genetically modified crops
and livestock. These rights would include the right to "use
the product of his harvest for reproduction or propagation by
him on his own farm", and "implies authorization of
the farmer to use the protected livestock for an agricultural
purpose. This includes the sale for the purposes of agricultural
The NFU is committed to providing accurate up-to-date
information on biotechnology and farm use. In addition practical
instruction may also be required. The NFU also believes that information
on biotechnology should be freely available to the public, and
is encouraged by the variety and number of sources of information
that are now available. These range from supermarket leaflets
to detailed explanatory booklets. These should allow the public
to develop their attitudes to biotechnology based on science rather
The NFU is committed to the development of sound
agriculture practices. The NFU believes that the responsible introduction
of genetically modified crops and livestock will form part of
this farming equation in the future.
This report examines the potential benefits
of the application of biotechnology to British agriculture, horticulture
and associated processing and manufacturing industries. It identifies
a number of concerns and makes suggestions for future action.
2. WHAT IS
In the broadest sense biotechnology is the use
of biological processes in industry. Biotechnology plays a part
in the making of cheese, bread, wine and beer which all utilise
natural biological processes. However, the term "biotechnology"
is now more commonly applied to modern technologies such as genetic
modification, genetic fingerprinting and antibody technology.
Biotechnology covers such a broad spectrum of
techniques and applications that it cannot be accepted or rejected
as a whole. Different applications offer different opportunities
and raise different concerns. This must be recognised and an assessment
made case by case regarding benefits, risks and ethical concerns.
Within this document the term "biotechnology"
is restricted to the range of techniques and applications that
can be used in the production and manufacture of animal and crop
based products. The science underlying biotechnology is advancing
rapidly. We can therefore only examine the technology available
today. No doubt future applications will offer further benefits
and present different concerns.
UK agriculture and horticulture are part of
a food industry which is adapting to the pressures of change from
an expanding European Union, CAP reform, GATT and environmental
pressures, as well as responding to changing consumer concerns
and market requirements. In order to survive and succeed UK farmers
and growers must continue to be competitive primary suppliers
to the food chain. They must continue to minimise costs, improve
productivity, enhance quality and develop new market opportunities
while maintaining high animal husbandry and welfare standards,
and helping to protect the environment.
Biotechnology provides further opportunities
to adapt to the pressures for change. It cannot be the solution
to all our problems, but can play an important and innovative
role in maintaining the competitiveness of UK agriculture and
Biotechnology was identified as one of the most
promising technologies for sustainable development in the Commission
of European Communities' 1993 white paper "Growth, Competitiveness,
Employment: The Challenges and Ways Forward into the 21st century".
It was also pinpointed as a key area for future development in
the Governments' Office of Science and Technology document entitled
"Progress through Partnership", which was the report
from the Steering Group of the Technology Foresight Programme
1995. One of the key recommendations in that report was the need
to "Exploit the growing capabilities of biotechnology to
modify the properties of agricultural products." The UK has
the strongest scientific and industrial base in the EU in biotechnology
and so there is considerable scope for development in that area.
4. THE BENEFITS
The NFU believes that biotechnology may help
improve the efficiency of production, develop new market opportunities,
enhance the marketability of many existing products and contribute
to better standards of animal health and welfare. We also believe
biotechnology is capable of delivering environmental benefits.
4.1 Efficiency of Production
Biotechnology has the potential to improve the
efficiency of production. Genetic mapping and marker-assisted
breeding programmes are already being used to develop, through
conventional breeding processes, livestock and crop varieties
with improved performance. The development of biotechnological
kits for rapid diagnosis of disease will allow more targeted disease
and pest control. Genetically modified crop varieties which are
resistant to pests or a specific herbicide are already in the
marketplace. These can be used as part of integrated crop management
systems and can reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides.
Other developments that could lead to more efficient farming are
the development of perennial crops that would be sown once and
harvested each year. This would lead to a reduction in labour
costs, and would have environmental benefits by reducing soil
erosion and encouraging better water retention. Crops that were
modified to include root nodules that could fix atmospheric nitrogen
would greatly reduce the need for the application of nitrogen
The use of these new technologies could result
in fewer losses from disease, reduced expenditure on agrochemicals
and veterinary medicines, and increased marketable yields.
4.2 New Market Opportunities
Biotechnology can be used to develop new crops
and extend uses for existing crops offering wider market opportunities
for the farmer and grower. For example, oilseed rape plants from
which biodegradable plastics may be produced have been bred using
genetic modification. These plants are now being further developed
and may provide a cheaper and renewable source of plastic. The
development of livestock that produce milk with reduced allergenic
properties is another possibility. The development of crops that
have a greater climatic range may allow the growing of plants
in the UK that will produce products to supplant those presently
Other potential market opportunities include
biofuels from modified fast growing trees, new varieties of ornamental,
industrial oils, cosmetics, paper production, pharmaceuticals
and novel foods.
It is likely that this technology will initially
be used to develop a range of niche markets for a small number
of farmers and growers.
4.3 Marketability of Existing Products
Biotechnology can be used to modify food to
meet consumer needs more closely. Market research indicates that
better eating quality, reduced allergenic properties, improved
flavour, enhanced safety, superior nutritional content, and environmental
gain, are of increasing importance. In addition, food manufacturers
and retailers are seeking ways to add value, differentiate their
products, reduce waste and satisfy the ever-increasing demand
for convenience foods.
The application of biotechnology has the potential
to help meet these changing consumer needsnot least by
offering a wider choice of better value for money products which
are attractive and safe. Improvements can be made to fresh produce
and to the raw materials used in the manufacture of processed
foods. The introduction of more desirable food processing characteristics
could mean less processing and less waste. Biotechnology can also
be used to add value beyond the farm-gate, for example, through
the use of food processing enzymes to enhance flavour. Through
using this technology to meet consumer needs, benefits should
accrue to primary producers, food processors and manufacturers
and to the retail sector.
Plant and animal breeders as well as food processors
and manufacturers are already striving to meet consumer needs
using conventional methods. Biotechnology can help to achieve
their objectives. Below are two examples:
Genetic modification in potatoes could:
Increase availability of UK varieties
by extending growing seasons through introducing stress tolerance
Improve flavour and mash texture
through modification of starch and sugar content.
Reduce the water content in potatoes
to limit the fat retained in crisps and chips and meet the processors'
needs more closely.
Extend shelf life by suppressing
sprouting and reducing rots.
Reduce chemical residues by introducing
herbicide tolerance, disease and pest resistance traits.
In pigs, biotechnology could:
Help improve animal health through
the development of new vaccines and diagnostic kits for rapid
Give the potential to provide disease
and parasite resistant animals and so improve animal welfare.
Improve flavour, texture and fat
content and distribution through the application of marker-assisted
Improve the efficiency of food surveillance
through the development of rapid tests for bacterial contamination
or antibiotic residues.
Include opportunities for xenotransplantation.
4.4 Animal Health and Welfare
Biotechnology could make a major contribution
to animal health through the development of new vaccines and diagnostic
systems. Genetic mapping and marker-assisted breeding could also
be used to help select for disease and parasite resistance characters.
Vaccination is a central strategy for disease
control. Genetic modification can be used to develop new, more
effective vaccines. These could be particularly important for
viral infections which have proved difficult to control through
conventional vaccines. The use of such vaccines in human medicine
is already well accepted.
Diagnostic systems based on antibodies will
provide rapid and accurate disease diagnoses. Such systems are
highly sensitive and will detect very low levels of a pathogen.
They are likely to prove a valuable veterinary tool. While not
only of welfare interest, diagnostic systems could be used to
improve parental verification and provide other genetic information.
4.5 Environmental Benefits
Applications of biotechnology could help reduce
our dependence on chemical inputs. For instance, in-built pest
resistance and built-in herbicide tolerance, developed through
genetic modification, are already being used with genetically
modified maize and soya as part of integrated crop management
systems in North America.
The use of biotechnologically produced diagnostic
kits which are accurate, sensitive and reliable will allow more
targeted pest control. Agrochemicals can then be applied only
when and where needed, reducing the total amount used.
"Cleaner" raw materials for manufacturing
could reduce the amount of harmful chemicals released into the
environment. For example, the oil profiles of oilseed crops are
being modified to provide industrial feedstocks such as adipic
acid for nylon production and lauric acid for detergents. This
resource is renewable and potentially more environmentally friendly
(or "cleaner") than the conventional petrochemical feedstock.
Biotechnology is already used for cleaning up
waste and contamination. Techniques used for bioremediation are
likely to be further developed to allow cleaning up of soil contaminated
with pesticides, heavy metals, or other pollutants. This could
help "repair" environmental damage.
4.6 The Developing World
Biotechnology is an affordable technology and
if applied sensitively is capable of delivering significant benefits
to countries with less developed agricultural systems. For example,
the introduction of stress tolerance characteristics will improve
the reliability of yields by helping crops withstand extreme conditions,
new disease and pest resistance traits will help reduce crop losses,
and genetic improvement of local crops and livestock can be accelerated
through the use of genetic maps and marker-assisted breeding programmes.
5. THE BUSINESS
The contribution of biotechnology to the competitiveness
of UK agriculture, and associated industries, could be limited
by the lack of harmonisation of regulatory controls between Britain,
Europe and the rest of the world.
5.1 Safety Controls
The first priority of the regulatory framework
must be to guarantee protection of the consumer and the environment,
but should not be an unnecessary burden on industry, nor discourage
beneficial development. Government must ensure that a competitive
Differences currently exist in the regulations
concerning the approval of applications of biotechnology. The
process for safety approval of foods derived from genetic modification
in the UK and the EU differs from that in the USA. There is also
variation in the regulatory control of releasing genetically modified
organisms into the environment. Lack of harmonisation will continue
to impede the development of biotechnological industries both
within the UK and internationally. The NFU therefore believes
that co-ordination of regulatory controls is essential to maximise
Action is already being taken to develop and
co-ordinate international policy in this area by the United Nations
Environmental Programme, the World Health Organisation (WHO),
the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Codex
The NFU is sensitive to the concerns of underdeveloped
and developing countries on the possible exploitation by multinational
companies of products derived from their naturally occurring flora
and fauna. The NFU supports attempts to develop international
legislation in this area.
Following many years of negotiations, and the
failure of the 1995 draft EC Directive for the Legal Protection
of Biotechnological Inventions because of ethical objections,
a new version of the legislation is again under consideration.
The aim of the Directive is to harmonise the intellectual property
laws of member states. The Directive was revised and again presented
to the European Commission and Parliament in 1997 and has still
not been approved. It now includes satisfactory clauses which
give derogations for farm use, and should allow farmers, and the
companies producing GM products, to benefit from them.
The NFU considers that the absence of a harmonising
directive hampers the competitiveness of British industry and
urges the EC to pass satisfactory and appropriate legislation
as soon as is practical.
Whilst biotechnology is already highly regulated,
there are a number of concerns: the likely impact on the environment;
the practical problems which face farmers, growers and the food
industry; the concentration of power and control of biotechnological
applications on the input side of agriculture in the hands of
a few multinational agri-food companies; and, the public attitudes
toward this new science.
6.1 Changes to the Natural Environment
Those intending to conduct an experimental release
or to market a genetically modified organism (GMO) must obtain
consent from the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is
advised by the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment
In order for consent to be granted safety and risk is evaluated.
The NFU believes that the regulatory controls
do not take sufficient account of all the potential environmental
post-release hazards and their implications when genetically
modified plants are grown on a commercial scale. There is the
possibility that genetically modified crop plants will spread
into the natural environment, or that gene transfer into wild
species by cross pollination will occur. This is considered genetic
pollution by some environmentalists and could lead to an erosion
of genetic diversity if "foreign" genes replace those
already present in native plants. Field trials indicate that the
likelihood of a genetically modified crop spreading into a natural
environment is no different from that of the conventional crop
from which it is derived. Other field trials show that cross pollination
is inevitable but that the significance of it depends on the crop
species being used, and the types of weed or wild plants that
naturally occur in the environment.
Other concerns relate to the effects that herbicide
tolerant genetically modified (GM) crops, or GM crops that contain
a natural pesticide, will have on the environment. For example,
a more complete destruction of weed species at field margins and
hedgerow bottoms could reduce the habitat availability for insects.
Also, if herbicide resistant volunteers become a problem in following
crops, a less acceptable herbicide may have to be used to control
them. Both of these results could cause a reduction in the numbers
of birds and other predators that rely on the weed and hedgerow
environment and the animals that live therein. In a similar manner,
a more effective method of killing systemically feeding insect
pests will reduce the availability of food for predators. A balance
needs to be struck between the legitimate desire of farmers to
provide a livelihood for themselves and their families and the
continuing need to maintain a sustainable environment for future
More worrying are studies that suggest that
some GM pesticide-containing crops may affect the longevity and
fecundity of predator insects, such as ladybirds, or may affect
the behaviour of pollinators, such as bees. Also, the attainment
of resistance by pest insects to the Bt toxins may ultimately
reduce the usefulness of such GM crops. Other concerns relate
to the possible transfer of genes between plant viruses and their
hosts. There is relatively little information on the relationships
of plant viruses and the field environment, so if such transfers
do occur the significance of them cannot yet be accurately forecast.
In general it can be said that scientists do not have a complete
understanding of natural ecosystems. It is therefore impossible
to predict accurately the effects of large scale release of genetically
The NFU is seeking further clarification about
what might be considered "harmful" to the environment,
or how any "harm" will be observed and quantified. Moreover,
whose responsibility is it to ensure that "harm" does
not result, and on whom does legal liability fall if it should?
The NFU is concerned that there is currently
no requirement for monitoring environmental change after consent
to market has been granted. However, it is recognised that widespread
monitoring would be very difficult and costly. It is also acknowledged
that a condition of consent to market a GMO requires the applicant
to inform the Secretary of State of any environmental problems
that subsequently occur. Nevertheless, the NFU believes that this
requirement is not adequate to ensure that any environmental change
will be observed and acted upon. Governmental should therefore
be proactive in setting up a process of post-release monitoring
of newly approved commercial growing of GM plants.
The NFU think that the monitoring programme
should be independent of the company that is expected to profit
from it, should be paid for by government, and should either be
directed by government, or under government contract. We believe
that this post-release monitoring programme should last for a
10 year period and that the review that follows should form the
basis for the continued licensing of the GM crop. The report and
data that arise form the monitoring programme should be in the
public domain. Any severe environmental changes that arise within
the monitoring period could lead to immediate withdrawal of approval.
Prompt action would then have to be taken to limit environmental
damage if such an event occurred. The NFU has noted that suggested
changes to EC Directive 90/220 on deliberate releases of genetically
modified organisms into the environment has included a provision
for a mandatory monitoring of products after their placing on
the market, which will be linked to a consent granted for a fixed
time period of seven years. These proposals generally correspond
with NFU proposals in this area.
The NFU believes farmers will continue to have
an important role to play in observing any changes in the agricultural
environment. A clear regulatory framework would help them properly
to fulfil this role.
Further ecological research should therefore
be a priority, in order to improve our understanding of natural
ecosystems and the implications of releasing novel organisms into
6.2 Agricultural Controls
During the approval process ACRE considers the
environmental hazards of the genetically modified organisms submitted
to it. ACRE evaluates the likelihood of a hazardous event occurring
and its possible impact on the environment. However, the NFU continues
to recognise that ACRE's remit is limited and we believe that
some wider issues should be formally considered by regulators
and advisory committees with appropriate expertise. One example
of such a problem would be that of the development of herbicide
tolerant plants, and whether the use of such plants is a good
strategy for weed control both environmentally and agronomically
in the long term. An integrated system, applying principles similar
to those applied to agrochemical approvals, might be appropriate,
and deserves further consideration.
Under current regulatory controls, responsibility
for the sensible use of the technology falls to the farmer, whose
decision making is influenced by numerous socio/economic and environmental
factors. Furthermore, it is important not to under-estimate the
influence of the commercial companies supplying production inputs
to the farmer, nor the specified requirements of the processors
and manufacturers who will purchase the end product. In order
to ensure that the technology is used responsibly it is essential
that explanatory information is provided to the farmer. Information
is necessary to explain how to use the product and to identify
In view of this the NFU, in association with
the British Society of Plant Breeders and the United Kingdom Agricultural
Supply Trade Association, in 1997 produced codes of practice that
relate to the provision of information for genetically modified
crops. The main features of the codes are the requirement for
a clear identifier that a seed is genetically modified to be placed
on all seed packets/sacks. This should be supplemented by more
detailed information supplied in a leaflet that accompanies the
seed, sales literature, and the National Institute of Agricultural
Botany recommended lists. The explanatory information should provide
details of the specific genetic modification, and should give
details of the agronomy of the GM plant. Farmer training schemes
may also be necessary. When the crop is harvested the produce
should be segregated from that of non-GM crops. Each GM crop consignment
should be accompanied by a post-harvest declaration, which should
include the name of the variety. The provision of such information
should be maintained during subsequent transportation. These codes
of practice will require detailed record keeping both on and off
farm, which will form the basis of traceability of the crop.
6.3 Practical Considerations
The NFU has examined the practical problems
which the farmer and grower may face as a result of growing genetically
modified crops. For example:
Herbicide tolerant volunteers;
Reduced efficacy of agrochemicals;
Cross contamination between GMO and
Herbicide tolerant crop varieties will lead
to herbicide tolerant volunteers in future crops on that land.
Volunteer oilseed rape in arable crops is already posing an increasing
problem to UK farmers. Herbicide tolerance may compound this problem
and increasingly limit crop rotation and management systems.
Through genetic modification, herbicide tolerance
is being incorporated into many crop species, such as soya, maize,
oilseed rape, and sugar beet. Widespread use of these herbicide
tolerant crops might result in over reliance on one herbicide,
or a few such herbicides. This will increase the selective pressures
on the weeds which may accelerate the development of resistance
to the herbicide.
There is also the possibility that a gene conferring
herbicide tolerance could be transferred to weed species by natural
cross breeding. Tolerance to the herbicide might than spread through
the weed population. The spectrum of weeds controlled by a particular
herbicide would be reduced, limiting the efficacy of that agrochemical.
A more severe complication of this might be that of gene "stacking",
where the genes for tolerance to several different herbicides
become concentrated in one weed species. Obviously, other herbicides
would be available to control volunteers and weeds, but these
may be less "safe" and increase the complexity of weed
Oilseed rape volunteers in a future crop of
a different variety will result in cross-contamination, affecting
the marketability of the crop. Although this problem is not new,
it is likely to be increasingly important as new types of "designer"
oilseed rape, with specific oil profiles for industrial use, become
commercially available. Controlling such volunteers may be difficult.
Methods of zoning
or isolation may be necessary. These are unpopular, difficult
to implement and will reduce the flexibility of land use.
Another concern was highlighted by the decision
of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1998 to reduce
the level of the herbicide bromoxynil to which humans can be exposed.
The EPA rules state that human exposure must be 100x less than
the lowest concentration shown to cause birth defects and cancer
in laboratory mice. A bromoxynil tolerant GM cotton plant passed
this test and in 1997 170,000 hectares of it were planted in the
USA. The EPA changed the acceptable levels to a tenth of that
previously used because pregnant women and infants are considered
to be at extra risk. Residues of bromoxynil on fields planted
with the GM cotton have been said to exceed this lower threshold.
Assuming that the reduced levels are upheld by the EPA Scientific
Advisory Committee the GM cotton may have to be withdrawn from
The NFU believes that advisory panels should
take account of these wider implications when granting consent
6.4 Animal Welfare
The NFU acknowledges that genetic modification
of animals raises greater moral and ethical concerns than genetic
modification of plants or micro-organisms.
There are currently four main areas of research
where the use of genetic modification of animals is being investigated.
These are disease and parasite resistance, growth promotion, the
use of livestock for pharmaceutical production, and for supplying
organs for transplantation to humans (xenotransplantation). Biotechnology
might be used to enhance an animal's resistance to specific diseases.
Marker-assisted breeding can be used to transfer naturally occurring
disease resistances into commercial livestock, but in some cases
efficient resistance may only be achievable by genetic modification.
Such developments must deliver positive health benefits without
compromising animal welfare. Some initial research into enhancing
productivity of livestock through genetic modification resulted
in unexpected deleterious effects (although these have since been
The third area of interest is pharmaceutical
production. Therapeutic proteins which cannot easily be synthesised
in vitro can be synthesised by genetically modified animals.
This technology can be valuable for producing human and veterinary
pharmaceuticals and vaccines. An example of this is the production
of a,-antitrypsin extracted from the milk of a herd of
transgenic sheep that is being clinically tested as a treatment
for cystic fibrosis. It should be pointed out that altering milk
composition can also be done for human nutritional reasons. Another
possible use of transgenic animals is to use them as models for
the study of animal or human diseases.
The final area is that of xenotransplantation.
This area was extensively explored by the Advisory Group on the
Ethics of Xenotransplantation. Their report entitled, "Animal
Tissue into Humans" was published in 1996. They concluded
that there were no particular ethical objections to the use of
animal organs for human transplantations. However, they concluded
that the use of primates for such purposes should be precluded
because of the risk of disease transfer to humans. They also recommended
that a two year moratorium be put on actual animal to human transplants
to try to determine what risks of disease transfer, if any, there
are in practice. Recent studies of the retroviruses of pigs, the
animals that are expected to be the most likely organ donors,
have shown that some viruses are intimately integrated into the
pig's genome. This means that producing virus-free pigs may be
impractical. This issue will have to be thoroughly evaluated before
pigs, or for that matter other mammalian species, are used for
The development of cloning technology, and its
application to animals such as cattle and sheep, has raised other
issues. One of the first is that cloned animals have proved to
be much larger than non-cloned ones, with the animal welfare considerations
that this has raised for the mother of such animals. Another problem
that could arise would be if cloning was so widespread as to result
in an unacceptable level of inbreeding. However, theoretical studies
suggest that this problem could be limited. On the beneficial
side cloning could be used as a useful technique to aid in the
preservation of rare breeds. Nevertheless, the NFU expects that
in due course cloning will become one of many accepted techniques
for livestock reproduction.
The report of the Banner Committee on The Ethical
Implications of Emerging Technologies in the Breeding of 7Farm
Animals closely investigated a range of techniques from selective
breeding to genetic modification. Amongst its recommendations,
the Committee called for a number of techniques to be considered
further by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. The NFU supported
this recommendation. Government must ensure that applications
of new technologies do not lead to animal welfare problems.
6.5 Antibiotic-Resistant Marker Genes
One of the first genetically modified crops
that was adopted for commercial planting was Novartis's Bt maize.
This contained an antibiotic-resistant "marker" gene.
The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) recommended
against the authorisation of this product for growing in the UK
or Europe because of the perceived risk of the "marker"
gene being transferred to the bacterial inhabitants of the gut
of livestock, with eventual possible transfer of antibiotic resistance
to human pathogens. This risk was considered to be low but it
was felt that further investigations were warranted before the
use of the maize was acceptable. This recommendation was eventually
overturned by the EC, which led to considerable public protest.
The whole matter is still not resolved as this document is written,
as various legal and technical challenges to the decision have
not yet been resolved. Because of these concerns it is the policy
of the NFU that such "marker" genes not be included
in genetically modified crops in the future. They are felt to
be unnecessary, as consumers are reluctant to accept them, and
alternatives are available.
6.6 Minor Crops
Conventional crop protection methods often neglect
the needs of minor crops due to the high cost of obtaining a licence
compared with the relatively low expected financial return. The
biotechnological techniques for disease and pest control already
developed for major crops such as maize and soya, offer enormous
potential for the protection of horticultural and other minor
crops. There is need for agrochemical companies to license generic
technologies in their use in minor crop development. Examples
of these would be herbicide tolerance and pesticide inclusion.
The government should also fund basic research to ensure that
these new technologies can be transferred to minor crops which
currently have little or no protection. This could be vital to
the future viability of such crops.
Imports of the GM commodity crops soya and maize
have led to considerable public unease. The lack of segregation
and consequently labelling has led to a situation where it will
need a considerable effort for a consumer to avoid eating food
that does not contain genetically modified components. Together
with retailers and other UK bodies the NFU think that this situation
is unsatisfactory. Ideally, international acceptance of data,
and recognition of safety evaluation procedures, might counter
these concerns. At the moment UK producers could be competitively
disadvantaged as regulatory controls have not been harmonised,
and appear unlikely to be in the near future.
7. FOOD AND
British farmers and growers aim to meet consumers'
requirements by producing a variety of safe, fresh, wholesome
and competitively-priced food. Consumers must have confidence
in the food they eat, and in the regulatory system which protects
their interests. Any loss of public confidence would be serious
for consumers, producers and the food industry alike.
7.1 Public Perception
Consumer research shows that the public has
reservations over the use of biotechnology in food production.
Attitudes vary according to the application. For example, applications
involving genes derived from plants are perceived more favourably
than those involving genes derived from animal sources.
Public perception will be a significant influence
in the uptake of the technology by food manufacturers and retailers.
Application of biotechnology could be used to enhance the value
of a brand, such as the Flavr Savr tomato paste. However, in other
cases a poor perception of the application could damage the brand
image. In such a case this could also damage public perception
of the corresponding conventional product.
7.2 Food Safety
The NFU's existing Food Policy States:
the approval of new products must
be based on sound scientific criteria and a clear understanding
of the nature of the food and its safety hazards;
legislation must be clear, practicable
food safety controls should be harmonised
In Europe all foods derived using the process
of genetic modification are regarded as "novel". The
EC Directive on Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients was enacted
in May 1997. The Directive seeks to harmonise controls in Europe.
One difficulty with the legislation is that a food is only considered
to be a "novel" one, and so covered by the legislation,
if it is "no longer equivalent" to an existing
food. Unfortunately the term "no longer equivalent"
is not clearly defined and this can lead to uncertainty. In addition,
while a particular food may not be covered by the novel food regulations,
there can be consumer concerns about how the product has been
We are concerned that products of biotechnology
(genetic modification in particular) are reaching the market in
Europe before harmonised controls are in place. The NFU believes
that international guidelines for safety assessment are crucial
and supports the programme being developed by the WHO/FAO to compare
and co-ordinate international policies on this matter.
The NFU believes that the safety assessment
procedure carried out by the ACNFP provides adequate protection
to the consumer. Openness is essential for building and maintaining
public confidence in products of biotechnology. The approval process
should be transparent and include consumer consultation.
Product labelling and further explanatory information
is vital in ensuring that consumers can make an informed choice.
A careful balance should be maintained between the information
supplied on food labels and information provided from other sources
to assist the consumer in understanding and interpreting these
labels. Food labels should be clear, simple, truthful and meaningful.
Misleading or confusing claims are unacceptable, do not serve
the public interest and are commercially counter-productive.
Some consumers have moral and ethical concerns
about foods derived from genetically modified organisms. In 1992
the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food appointed a Committee
to consider the moral and ethical concerns of such food products.
It recommended that genetically modified foods containing "copy"
genes of human origin or genes derived from animals should be
labelled to allow consumer choice.
The government's Food Advisory Committee also
reviewed guidelines for labelling food produced using genetic
modification in 1993. They recommended that food should be labelled
It contains a gene originally derived
from a human or an animal which is subject to religious dietary
It is plant or microbiological material
containing genes derived from human or animal sources.
The Group of Advisers on the Ethical Implications
of Biotechnology of the European Commission, in May 1995, presented
the opinion that labelling will be appropriate where modern biotechnology
has led to a substantial change in composition, nutritional value
or the use for which the food is intended. In such cases the label
should specify not only the nature of the change but also the
process used to achieve the change (e.g., genetic modification).
If the product has not been substantially changed, it will not
be appropriate to label.
The food industry recognises that these guidelines
provide only a baseline requirement. In order to ensure informed
consumer choice labelling should go further than these guidelines.
The NFU worked in association with the Institute of Grocery Distribution
(IGD), who in 1997 produced a set of voluntary guidelines for
the labelling of genetically modified foods. The announcement
that these guidelines will be introduced for 1998 was made by
the IGD, in association with the British Retail Consortium and
the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) on 20 November 1997. Since
then a draft EC Directive has been produced that relates to food
that contains soya and maize. Labelling will use the specific
wording of "produced from genetically modified soya/maize".
Products can be labelled as not containing GM soya/maize as long
as there is scientific analysis to support the claim. The third
category is "may contain" GM soya/maize. The contents
of this EC Directive has proved to be controversial and it is
unclear whether it will be approved in its present form.
Labelling regulations will ultimately need to
be decided at European level, and be further incorporated into
national legislation. They will also have to apply not just to
foodstuffs, but also to animal feed.
7.4 Provision of Information
Consumer reaction to the use of biotechnology
in food production will be determined by many factors, such as
perception of benefits and risks, knowledge, understanding and
perceived freedom of choice.
Food labels and appropriate supplementary information
will be important factors in achieving understanding, maintaining
confidence and allowing an informed choice. The provision of information
alone may not improve public acceptance but it will allow consumers
to make informed choices.
The NFU recognises that there is a need for
improving public understanding. Balanced and impartial information
should be provided by government and the food industry. The Ministry
of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is commended for its Foodsense
series of publications. Other useful booklets have been produced
by the Biotechnology and Biology Sciences Research Council and
the FDF. Further similar initiatives should continue.
The NFU also supports food industry initiatives
to develop communication strategies in order to improve public
understanding of the technology and its applications. The NFU
believes retailers are best placed to disseminate information
to consumers and many of them have produced explanatory leaflets
on biotechnology or specific aspects of it. Other explanatory
leaflets have been produced by the IGD.
It is important for the food industry itself
to gain a greater understanding of biotechnology and consumer
perceptions of biotechnology. The NFU recognises the importance
of consumer science research, such as that carried out by the
Institute of Food Research, and will continue to encourage research
into this area.
The NFU will continue to urge all levels of
the food chain to develop effective communication strategies in
relation to biotechnology.
8.1 Encourage the international harmonisation
of regulations controlling safety of biotechnology products.
8.2 Ensure the principle of farmers' privilege
is incorporated into the final version of the EC Directive for
the legal protection of biotechnological inventions.
8.3 Seek clarification of liability for any
environmental harm resulting from release to the environment of
genetically modified organisms.
8.4 Promote the introduction of a statutory
regime of post-release monitoring of commercially grown genetically
8.5 Urge government to consider formally certain
wider environmental and farming implications when considering
granting consent to market.
8.6 Ensure farmers are provided with all necessary
information to allow the responsible use of the technology.
8.7 Encourage openness and consumer consultation
during the approval process.
8.8 Continue working closely with other levels
of the food chain in order to develop a suitable food labelling
system for foods derived from genetic modification: and ensure
that any system does not cause any unnecessary bureaucratic or
logistical problems for food producers.
8.9 Work with government and other levels of
the food chain to improve public understanding of biotechnology.
9. Encourage research to improve understanding
of public perception of food and biotechnology.
9.1 Ensure that government research funding
is maintained, so that the UK and its farming industry stay at
the forefront of developments.
10.1 Biotechnology could improve the competitiveness
of UK agriculture in a variety of ways such as:
Reduced unit costs of production through:
Reduced expenditure on herbicides
Reduced losses through disease
New crops and new crop uses offering wider market
Improved marketability of existing products,
Improved taste, texture and keeping
Increased uniformity of products
More desirable processing qualities,
less waste for the food manufacturer
Efficacy of disease control through:
Reduction in pest damage
Improved animal health and welfare through:
In-built disease and parasite resistance
Biotechnology may also offer environmental benefits
"Cleaner" raw materials for industrial
Energy recycling through biofuel production
Bioremediation of contaminated land
More targeted pest/disease control reducing
the amount of chemical inputs
And offer benefits to the developing world through:
Improved stress tolerance in crops
More effective disease and pest control
More efficient genetic improvement of local
crops and livestock
10.2 The contribution of biotechnology to the
competitiveness of UK agriculture and associated industries could
be limited by:
lack of harmonisation of regulatory controls
between Europe, North America and the rest of the world
patent law, in particular, scope
Food and environmental safety controls
Public perception of biotechnology
Perceived benefits and risks
Possible rejection of technology
Farmers, growers and the food industry failing
to adopt new products
10.3 The NFU has a number of concerns relating
to some users of biotechnology:
Commercial competitiveness of UK agriculture
could be damaged if biotechnology developments were to be taken
up by competitor countries but not by the UK.
Implications for the wider environment
Incomplete understanding of natural
Insufficient requirement for monitoring
after consent to market
Potential reduction in natural biodiversity
Unclear liability for any environmental
Practical concerns for farmers
Herbicide tolerant volunteers
Reduced efficacy and availability
Cross contamination of industrial
and edible oil crops
Lack of a system to ensure responsible
use of the technology
Insufficient mechanism for withdrawal
Animal welfare implications
Possible affect on public perception
of conventional products
International marketing problems
THE NFU BIOTECHNOLOGY
The Biotechnology Working Party aims to develop
an understanding of the issues surrounding biotechnology, their
implications to agriculture and horticulture and to make recommendations
to the Council of the NFU on biotechnology policy.
Terms of Reference
The Biotechnology Working Party will consult
with and co-ordinate the views of interested committees, groups
and relevant organisations.
Tim Bennett, NFU Deputy President, and
Welsh dairy and livestock farms.
Ben Boot, OBE, Chairman of the NFU Biotechnology
Working Party, member of the NFU Milk Committee and a Shropshire
Dr David Carmichael, member of the NFU
Sugar Beet Committee and Lincolnshire arable farmer.
Dr Oliver Doubleday, Member of the BBSRC
Strategy Board, and Chairman of the NFU Parliamentary, Land Use
and Environment Committee, and a Kent horticultural, sheep and
Bob Fiddaman, member of the NFU Oilseeds
Committee and a Hertfordshire arable farmer.
Ross Kenyon, representing the poultry
John Lampitt, former Chairman of the
NFU Public Affairs Committee and a Warwickshire arable farmer.
Archie Montgomery, member of the NFU
Cereals Committee and a Somerset arable farmer.
Dr Graham Plastow of Dalgety plc and
Bob Uglow, a Buckinghamshire dairy farmer.
Piers Verey, member of the NFU Glasshouse
Produce Committee and a Hampshire horticulturist.
2 Genetically modified organisms are regulated by the
European Directives 90/219 (Contained Use) and 90/220 (Deliberate
Release) which is implemented in the UK by the Genetically Modified
Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 1995, under the Environmental
Protection Act 1990. Back
Zoning is the registering of a known locality where, for example,
only one type of "designer" oil may be grown. Back