It’s time to re-evaluate the impacts of the potential cultivation of GM crops in UK agriculture, says policy researcher at ADAS Carla Turner.
Genetic modification (GM) in crops has been on the political agenda since their emergence in the 1980s and the first commercially available GM crop approved for cultivation in 1994.
Within the European Union (EU) there has been a precautionary approach to the commercial cultivation of GM crops with stringent approvals legislation.
Consumer concerns, as well as lengthy and expensive regulatory hurdles, has meant that there has been limited investment in GM technology in the EU, and while GM imports are allowed with approvals, commercial GM crop cultivation is very low. Only Spain grows a significant amount of GM maize – around 138,000ha – which accounts for a third of their total maize production.
However recent changes in EU policy, whereby Member States can ban GM crops as they wish even if approved by the European Commission (EC), has reopened the debate.
How real is the prospect of GM crop cultivation in the UK?
As of August 2015 there are five GM crop applications submitted for authorisation from The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for cultivation, the majority maize. There has also been interest in GM potatoes with resistance to nematodes and late blight, the cause of the infamous Irish potato famine, which were trialled last year in the UK.
There is increased interest of GM crops designed to improve the quality of crops, for example by fortifying them with vitamins, such as Golden Rice, or making them more resilient to extreme weather.
However, any novel GM crops will need to go through the authorisation process with a likely earliest approval of 2017. In the longer term, GM insects (PDF, 360KB) may offer an opportunity to control disease in crop and livestock production, reducing pesticide use and increasing productivity. The main driver for the uptake of GM crops by UK farmers will be economic, offering savings on resource use, pest control and changes in yield.
But consumer opinion may limit the demand for GM produce and influence uptake. There is evidence that consumers are more accepting of GM technology in non-food e.g. biofuels or flowers, however there are still some concerns. Additionally at a farm level, farmers will need to consider agronomic issues of introducing a GM variety, potential contamination issues, both from pollination of neighbouring crops and integrity during storage and transport.
Potential issues for further evaluation
While the UK may secure the option to use or cultivate GM crops, it is vital to understand the possible impact on trade with other countries that choose not to do so. For instance, the introduction of GM crops may lead to a competitive advantage in terms of production costs or yield for growers in certain Member States.
Since the change in legislation there have been 19 new GM crop authorisations for feed/food use. This may indicate that the volume of GM trade is likely to increase.
In addition, individual Member States prohibiting the use of GM are likely to have an impact on trade routes and drive need for greater traceability, labelling, logistics and auditing. Additionally there may need to be buffer zones and anti-contamination measures for bordering countries that have conflicting views on GM, for example between England and Wales.
Hence, evaluating and understanding the possible impacts of the introduction of the GM crops within the UK is important to define the possible risks and opportunities for UK agriculture and food supply chains.
Potential risks include: negative consumer reaction; additional costs of labelling and traceability; risks from anti-GMO organisations; and contamination and liability.
Potential benefits include: a more resilient food supply chain, increased ability to adapt to a changing climate and regulation; lower inputs and costs of production so a competitive edge in global markets; and adding value through crops with an increased nutritional value and public health benefits.
What if the UK decides to grow GM?
For a GM crop to be approved for commercial use or cultivation in the UK, it would first go through the EFSA, including a regulatory Genetically Modified Organisms panel to assess risk to human and animal health, and to the environment.
If approved by the EFSA, individual Member States have the opportunity to prohibit their use, and in the UK, Scotland and Wales will have the opportunity to decide independently of England. This will allow countries to prohibit the use or cultivation of GM crops on other grounds such as socio-economic impacts and town and country planning permissions. This is in comparison to previous years when in order to restrict GMOs, Member States would use safeguard clauses, emergency measures and notification procedures (Article 23 of Directive 2001/18/EC, Article 34 of Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 and Article 114(5) and (6) TFEU) affecting decisions across the EU.
Defra has openly discussed its views on the introduction of crop biotechnology the report 2010 to 2015 government policy: food and farming industry, stating “that GM technology could deliver benefits providing it is used safely and responsibly, in particular as one of a range of tools to address the longer term challenges of global food security, climate change, and the need for more sustainable agricultural production.” In addition, they “support farmers having access to developments in new technology and being able to choose whether or not to adopt them” but that this will only happen if a robust risk assessment indicates that it is safe for people and the environment.
It’s very hard to speculate what might happen next. My feeling is that policy changes and the changing of opinions of key people within the debate, may indicate that GM cultivation for England is becoming seen as a distinct possibility in the next five years.
About Carla Turner
Carla Turner has worked across sectors, including a PhD in crop biotechnology and work in policy environments. She now works for ADAS and has a focus on social research and the implementation of social research techniques, particularly around policy evaluation. She is involved in several projects for Defra and Fera, including a project on sustainable intensification.