Thursday 20 June 2013
Thank you all for coming this morning.
There is no better venue at which to initiate a discussion about GM technology and the role it can play in helping us meet future challenges than here at Rothamsted Research – the joint home of the Norman Borlaug Institute for Global Food Security.
Back in the 1940s, against a backdrop of war, famine and political instability, Borlaug helped initiate what became known as the Green Revolution. This revolution saw a series of technological advances transform crop production in developing countries. It’s no exaggeration that Borlaug is referred to as “the man who saved a billion lives”. His example demonstrates what mankind can achieve through the application of science.
More than 70 years on from that pioneering work, the challenges facing us are no less daunting with the world’s population expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. As the recent Foresight Report set out, we must achieve “sustainable intensification” if we are to feed ourselves. The era of complacency about food production must come to an end.
I believe that it’s time to start a more informed discussion about the potential of genetically modified crops. A discussion that enables GM to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits.
While I believe that there are significant economic, environmental and international development benefits to GM, I am conscious of the views of those who have concerns and who need reassurance on this matter. I recognise that we – government, industry, the scientific community and others – owe a duty to the British public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation. We must lead this discussion, explaining to the public not only what GM technology is but also how it can help.
The recent OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook for 2012 to 2021 concluded that agricultural production needs to increase by 60 per cent over the next 40 years to meet the rising demand for food. Our growing population will put further pressures on land, energy and water - creating a food security risk. We need to adopt new technologies, of which GM is one, if we are to combat this.
Borlaug and others harnessed innovation to completely change the way we farm. For example, it has been estimated that the production of a given quantity of a crop now requires 65 per cent less land than it did in 1961. Between 1967 and 2007 world food production increased by 115 per cent but land use only increased by eight per cent. Indur Goklany has calculated that if we tried to support today’s population using the production methods of the 1950s, instead of farming 38 per cent of all land, we would need to use 82 per cent.
The political debate here in Britain in recent decades has been based on a false premise: that we can either produce more or look after the environment. The truth is we need to do both and we won’t be able to do so unless we embrace innovation in all areas – agriculture, agronomy, commerce and technology.
We have been adapting genetics through plant breeding for centuries. Recent advances such as the sequencing of the wheat genome by UK scientists and the development of “superwheat” over at NIAB in Cambridge show what can be done with conventional cross-breeding. But we’ll need to use all available tools if we are to address the serious challenges we face.
Used properly, the advanced plant-breeding technique of GM promises effective ways to protect or increase crop yields. It can also combat the damaging effects of unpredictable weather and disease on crops. It has the potential to reduce fertiliser and chemical use, improve the efficiency of agricultural production and reduce post-harvest losses.
Even more excitingly, if we use cultivated land more efficiently, we could free up space for biodiversity, nature and wilderness. Something I know a number of commentators have been calling for. Research undertaken by a team at Rockefeller University has found that over the course of the next 50 years new technology, combined with improved agricultural practices across the world, could release an area 2.5 times the size of France from cultivation.
Since 1996 there has been a 100-fold increase in the global use of GM. Last year, GM crops were grown by 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries on 170 million hectares. That’s 12 per cent of all arable land – an area around 7 times the size of the United Kingdom.
Farmers wouldn’t grow these crops if they didn’t benefit from doing so.
Governments wouldn’t licence these technologies if they didn’t recognise the economic, environmental and public benefits.
Consumers wouldn’t buy these products if they didn’t think they were safe and cost effective.
At the moment Europe is missing out. Less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation occurred in the EU. While the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies, Europe risks being left behind. We cannot afford to let that happen. The use of GM could be as transformative as the original agricultural revolution. The UK should be at the forefront of that, now, as it was then.
I want the UK to have a leading role in feeding the world and increasing the resilience of global food supplies, not standing by watching others take the lead and forge ahead. The UK is the natural home for science research. I want companies and research providers to know that the UK is the best place for them to carry out their work. If there are barriers preventing them from undertaking their activities here, this Government will help overcome them.
The current range of GM crops was designed to offer farmers easier, quicker and cheaper control over pests or weeds. Evidence demonstrates that they have delivered on this, providing economic benefits for farmers and consumers alike.
Europe benefits hugely from the GM crops grown in the rest of the world.
The EU is the world’s biggest net importer of agricultural goods and we rely on shipments of key commodities to support our livestock system. According to the European Feed Manufacturers Association, about 85 per cent of the EU’s compound livestock feed production is now labelled to indicate that it contains GM or GM-derived material.
In April, four of our major supermarket chains announced that they could no longer guarantee that no GM feed would be used in the production of their own-brand eggs and poultry due to the difficulty and expense of securing non-GM feed. This was a necessary step and the supermarkets were right to make it absolutely clear that the use of such products in no way constitutes a food safety issue. Such transparency is vital to ensure that consumers are able to make an informed choice.
At the beginning of the year I met the Brazilian Agriculture Minister in Berlin. He told me that GM soya is 30 per cent more cost effective than conventional soya. Soya is a key protein source for our livestock. It’s an integral part of the global food system.
Farmers worldwide grow GM soya because it makes business sense for them to do so. The adoption rates for GM soya stand at 88 per cent in Brazil, 93 per cent in the US and 100 per cent in Argentina.
Europe imports GM soya from those countries because it makes economic sense for us to do so. Sourcing non-GM soya can now cost between an extra £100-150 per tonne. Without imports of GM crops our food and particularly meat products would be more expensive.
We’re not just talking about food though. GM cotton is a real success story. More than two-thirds of global cotton production is now GM-based, so it’s likely that the majority of you in this room are wearing clothes made from GM crops.
GM cotton provides farmers with in-built protection against pests which can otherwise halve yields. So the farmer benefits through insurance against losses and reduced input costs. There are environmental benefits through reduced insecticide use.
The impacts of this are profound, particularly in developing countries where cotton tends to be grown. India went from being a net importer of cotton to a major exporter within a decade of GM cotton being approved in 2002. It is estimated that there has been a 216-fold increase in GM cotton uptake in India from 2002 to 2012.
This translates to an enhanced farm income from GM cotton of some $12.6 billion for Indian farmers, coupled with a 24 per cent increase in yield per acre and a 50 per cent gain in cotton profit among smallholders. Simultaneously, the quantity of insecticides used to control cotton bollworm reduced by 96 per cent from over 5,700 metric tonnes to as low as 222 metric tonnes of active ingredient in 2011.
Pest and Disease Resistance
GM has already been used to make crops that can resist attack from specific insect pests or plant diseases. Other traits are being developed, including using scientific expertise here in the UK.
The fungal disease late-blight remains a significant problem for potato growers. Tackling blight can require up to 15 separate fungicide applications a year. Before we skim over that fact, in practical terms that might see a heavy sprayer criss-crossing a field, burning diesel, compacting the soil, spraying the crop including surrounding plants and insects and emitting fumes. All this, up to 15 times a year.
The total annual cost to the UK of controlling this disease is around £60 million and even then crops can still be affected. Both the Sainsbury Laboratory and BASF have trialled different types of GM blight-resistant potato in the UK. If this type of crop can be successfully deployed, it could deliver both economic and environmental benefits. As well as protection against devastating plant diseases, inputs like pesticides and fuel could be dramatically reduced.
I’m dismayed by BASF’s recent decision to withdraw their Blight Resistant Potato from the EU approvals system. I don’t blame BASF. They simply took a commercial decision in response to current market and regulatory conditions. But the fact that those conditions have deteriorated to the point where a potentially economically beneficial and environmentally friendly crop has no prospect of gaining market access should be a wake-up call.
Thanks to biotechnology, farmers around the world have been able to protect yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming’s impact on the environment. There is also evidence which points to GM crops delivering further environmental benefits such as reduced soil erosion and reduced use of fuel and chemicals.
We are currently debating the effects of pesticides on bees and other insects. In other parts of the world where GM crops are grown, plants are better protected against pests and insects are better protected against accidentally being sprayed. I recently spoke to a farmer in North Carolina who has been able to do away with all of his spraying equipment as a result of GM technology.
The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits.
Nitrogen Use Efficiency
Enabling crops to use nitrogen more efficiently would mean less artificial fertiliser and reduced fuel use. Such traits are currently being developed commercially and field trials of nitrogen-efficient GM wheat and barley are scheduled to take place in Australia between 2013 and 2015.
In the longer term, research is underway into developing cereal crops that can ‘fix’ their own nitrogen. This could largely remove the need for farmers to apply chemical fertilisers. The environmental benefits of these kinds of crops are huge. Less spraying. Fewer chemicals going onto crops and the surrounding area. Fewer applications requiring less fuel. Less run off into our sensitive and vitally important water courses.
The challenge here is enormous, as are the potential benefits. This is why I welcome the £6.4 million grant provided by the Gates Foundation last year to the John Innes Centre at Norwich to research this. This type of large-scale investment into a global problem using UK scientific expertise is something we should be proud of. I hope other research providers will look to the UK first when making their investment decisions.
The benefits of GM do not just extend to developed countries.
It’s estimated that around 90 per cent of those farmers who grew GM crops in 2012 were small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Over 7 million farmers in China and a further 7 million farmers in India decided to grow insect-resistant GM cotton because of the significant benefits.
A GM drought-tolerant maize is now being grown in the USA and is undergoing field trials in Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. The Australians are currently researching GM drought-tolerant wheat. The potential for such crops to make a real difference to some of the world’s poorest countries is tremendous.
As well as drought-tolerance, scientists are also exploring the possible development of other GM crops which are flood-tolerant, salt-tolerant or resistant to extreme temperature fluctuations. All of these promise to allow agricultural production on land previously considered marginal.
In Uganda, field trials of disease-resistant and nutritionally-enhanced GM bananas are at an advanced stage. Nigerian scientists have responded to the devastating economic impact of the “mung moth” on the blackeyed pea harvest by developing a pest resistant variety. Nigerian farmers currently lose nearly £200 million worth of crops to the parasite each year and spend a further £300 million importing pesticides to deal with it.
There are also GM crops in the pipeline promising health and nutritional benefits, the impact of which could be most acutely felt in the developing world. GM crops with enhanced omega-3 properties are now close to market. Nigeria is undertaking field trials of GM bio-fortified cassava and sorghum with enhanced vitamin A and iron content.
Golden Rice was first created in 1999 by German professors Potrykus and Beyer and a not-for-profit independent research institute to help tackle vitamin A deficiency. It is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in children. The World Health Organisation estimates that this results in up to 500,000 children going blind a year – 250,000 of whom will lose their lives within a year. The problem is particularly severe in South East Asia.
Golden Rice was only possible as a result of genetic engineering. We should all reflect on the fact that it is 15 years since it was developed and that attempts to deploy it have been thwarted. This is despite the seeds being offered for free to those who need them most. In that time, more than seven million children have gone irreversibly blind or died.
Biotechnology can also help develop plant made pharmaceuticals which produce proteins that can be used, for example, in influenza vaccines or for insulin production.
GM offers real opportunities to develop crops that provide better resilience to extremes of weather and land conditions. There is the potential to add extra nutrients that can directly help people in developing countries who are vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies in their diets. As the world’s population continues to increase, access to these technologies becomes even more important.
As with all technologies, public and environmental safety is paramount. The reality is that in Europe and elsewhere, GM is perhaps the most regulated of all agricultural technologies.
There are some that describe GM crops as “Frankenfoods”, deliberately termed to imply that they pose a risk to human health and the environment.
The truth is that products are subject to extensive testing and development in tightly controlled conditions – progressing from laboratory, to glasshouse, to field trials only when it’s safe to do so.
After all of the pre-commercial testing, marketing applications for GM products must undergo a comprehensive case-by-case scientific risk assessment. This is undertaken by independent scientists in the European Food Safety Authority. In the UK, we also receive independent advice from committees of world-leading scientific experts.
Over the past 25 years the EU alone has funded more than 50 projects on GM safety involving more than 400 independent research groups at a cost of around £260 million. Summary reports produced by the European Commission in 2000 and in 2010 reached two powerful conclusions:
First, there was no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.
Second, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably makes GMOs even safer than conventional plants and food.
The European Commission’s Chief Scientist Professor Anne Glover has recently said that “There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health”.
Weed resistance is also often highlighted as an environmental problem associated with GM crops but it’s something that occurs in conventional cropping too. It’s not a GM issue, it’s a crop management issue. Farmers of both types of crops can take steps to mitigate against this, through effective management of rotations for example.
Concerns have also been voiced about the ability for GM crops to co-exist alongside conventional and organic agriculture. I would like to assure the public that this is an issue that we take seriously. As and when GM crops come through which could be grown here, we will introduce measures to segregate them from conventional and organic crops so that all economic interests are protected.
Agriculture is a highly segregated sector. Even though we don’t currently grow any GM crops commercially, our industry is already able to protect the integrity of crops intended for different market outlets. They do this, for example, to maintain the vigour of conventional hybrid seeds. We also have the experience of other countries who are growing GM crops and the European Bureau, which issues best practice guidelines for the effective management of GM crops.
With regard to consumer choice, I would like to make clear that no-one, least of all me, is suggesting the wholesale adoption of GM in the UK’s food chain. I believe that people should be able to walk into a supermarket and choose whether to buy local organic potatoes or those produced from a blight-resistant GM variety grown in the UK. Whatever the product, whatever its origin, people should be confident in the knowledge that it is safe to eat and grown sustainably. Our policy should be based on sound science and strong safeguards.
No-one wants to see a biotech monoculture in UK farming. Diversity and choice are a force for good.
Current EU situation
I am convinced that the EU has the most robust and comprehensive safety system for GMOs in the world. Not only do we have access to independent scientists in the European Food Safety Authority but there are scientific and regulatory authorities in each of the Member States who will assess GM crops and products before they are approved for use.
As I have already outlined, the EU is already a mass consumer of GM crops – primarily through imports of livestock feed. More than 40 GM products have received the necessary approval for food and feed use in the EU without any health or environmental issues arising.
Despite this, the picture is very different when it comes to the approval of GM crops which are destined to be grown within the EU. Only 1 crop has been approved for cultivation in the last 14 years. GM products which have passed the safety assessments remain stuck in the pipeline. I sympathise with the European Commissioner who has to grapple with divergent views across the EU.
While I acknowledge the views of other Member States, I want British researchers and farmers to be able to develop the latest technologies so that they can reap the economic and environmental benefits. At the moment we are expecting them to respond to the challenges of global food security with one hand tied behind their back.
This is deeply regrettable.
It means that the prospect of crops coming through which offer solutions to UK-specific problems are many years away.
We risk driving scientific and intellectual capital away from Europe for good. This will reduce our ability to develop and deploy crucial tools which could help ensure European agricultural production meets future demands while protecting the environment.
We need evidence-based regulation and decision making in the EU. Consumers need accurate information in order to make informed choices. The market should then decide if a GM product is viable.
Farmers are also consumers but right now that market is not functioning and they are being denied choice.
That’s why I want to explore ways of getting the EU system working, as this will encourage further investment and innovation.
I’m not in any way suggesting that EU safeguards should be watered down. They are vital. But we must find a way to allow fair market access for products which have undergone a rigorous case by case safety assessment.
Impact of EU’s position on the developing world
In April 2012, Ministers from 24 African states signed a joint communiqué which endorsed the use of biotechnology as one means of enhancing agricultural productivity in Africa.
Yet there is evidence that the EU’s treatment of GM is having a detrimental impact on developing countries. Europe’s attitude to GM is interpreted as a sign that the technology is dangerous. And this can generate unwarranted resistance to the technology in the parts of the world that most need access to agricultural innovations. Developing countries also fear being locked out of EU markets if they use a GM crop that is unapproved in the EU. Only recently, Professor Calestous Juma argued that the current situation “Was to the great detriment of Africa” and that “Opposition to new technologies may cast a dark shadow over the prospects of feeding the world.”
We have a responsibility in the EU to ensure that we set the right framework to enable developing countries to take their own informed decisions about whether GM solutions are appropriate for them.
UK Science and Research
I would like to pay tribute to the pioneering research into GM technology which is taking place in the UK, not just here at Rothamsted but at places like the John Innes Centre, the Sainsbury Laboratory, Leeds University and many others.
We have a world class science and research base and the expertise to develop the tools needed to address global challenges. We should rightly celebrate and be proud of this. There are opportunities to push ourselves even further. We in Britain have the science, the technology, the know-how to lead the world in this field. We must use our nation’s rich history of science and innovation as a stepping stone to the future.
GM crops offer a genuine prospect of high-yielding, low-or-no chemical agricultural production. If we want to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture, while safeguarding yields and maintaining efficient production, we need to encourage innovation not deter it. The work taking place at Rothamsted on aphid resistant wheat is cutting-edge. It is precisely the type of pioneering science that we are famous for. When it comes to developing and benefiting from GM technology I want the UK to be at the forefront of the global race, not watching from the sidelines.
The Agri-tech Strategy that David Willetts and I are collaborating on is aimed at ensuring just that and will be launched shortly. The aim is to turn innovative new ideas into practical applications, processes and products. We need to take advantage of opportunities to export UK agri-tech skills and services. GM is, however, only one of many agricultural technologies that we want to encourage.
The clear message I want to convey today on behalf of the Government is that we already have a world class plant science community, and we want the UK to be the best place in the world for research into agricultural science and technology. That includes GM. The Government wants to roll out the red carpet for potential researchers and developers. We want to work with you to overcome barriers to research and development into GM and other applications being undertaken here.
To conclude, the problems we face in feeding ourselves in 40 years’ time are very real and something we have to prepare for right now. We should all keep one fact at the front of our minds. At this very moment there are one billion people on this planet who are chronically hungry. Are we really going to look them in the eye and say “We have the proven technology to help, but the issue’s just too difficult to deal with, it’s just too controversial”? It won’t be long until the population moves from seven billion to nine billion and we’ll have even fewer resources to feed them. It is our duty to explore technologies like GM because they may hold the answers to the very serious challenges ahead.
GM isn’t necessarily about making life easier for farmers or making their businesses more profitable, although I believe that there are great opportunities for the industry.
It’s about finding non-chemical solutions to pests and diseases. It’s about fortifying food with vitamin A so that children in the poorest countries don’t go blind or die. It’s about making crops durable enough to survive sustained drought. It’s about developing new medicines. It’s about feeding families in some of the poorest parts of the world. We cannot expect to feed tomorrow’s population with yesterday’s agriculture. We have to use every tool at our disposal.
While I fully understand and respect the different opinions that exist on this issue, part of the discussion I hope today will initiate will be around the body of scientific evidence behind this technology, the rigorous controls that are already in place and the wealth of benefits on offer.
But it isn’t just for government to make the case. Industry, the scientific and research community, retailers, NGOs, civic society and the media all have a role to play in ensuring that this discussion is constructive, well informed and evidence-led. I would like all those here today to play their part. I’ll back you all the way.