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New technology in agriculture:

pushing for consumer choice
IN 2003, nearly 70 million hectares launched by some of the key industry progress has been made to address
(170 million acres) – an area more players: BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow these issues using the following:
than twice the size of the UK – was AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and • the UK has held a nationwide
planted with genetically modified Syngenta – six companies involved in public debate, with an extensive
(GM) crops around the world. This agricultural biotechnology and GM review of both the science and
represents a 15% increase in the food in the UK. economics of GM crops and food;
As the UK figures from 2002 (see Figure 1). Clearly all of the companies • the results of four years of
Approximately seven million farmers involved in ABC share a commercial independent GM field trials in the
grow GM crops, most of whom live in interest in the success of this UK were announced;
prepares its the resource-poor areas of the technology. However, agricultural • a new regulatory framework
policy developing world. biotechnology will only be successful governing the development and
statement Clearly then, from a global in the UK if there is broad public marketing of GM products has been
on perspective (See box), the use of acceptance and if the public, put into place in Europe and
genetically biotechnology in agriculture is a huge government and regulators are enshrined in UK law; and
success. However, pick up a newspaper convinced of the benefits. • a recent European Directive ensures
modified in the UK and you will probably get extensive labelling of GM products
crops, the impression that GM crops are an and derivatives from January 2004
Global statistics for GM crops
Sarah unmitigated disaster. Why does this thus allowing consumer choice.
Harvey dichotomy exist and what is the
industry doing about it? • Since 1995, 300 million public opinion
Speck and hectares of GM crops have
There is no denying that public Gauging the true public attitudes on
Julian been grown any subject is always a difficult
trust in food and how it is produced
Little has been dented by several highly process. However a ‘survey of surveys’
believe publicised serious food and farming • An extra 9 million suggests that UK consumers are less
consumers scares, such as salmonella, listeria, hectares of GM crops were antagonistic to the introduction of GM
should be BSE and foot and mouth disease. grown in 2003, compared foods than some elements of the UK
Concerns about the environment, to 2002 media might suggest.
allowed to
food safety and questions about A MORI poll for Greenpeace in 2002
make their agricultural practices have become • Seven million farmers in suggested that more than 40% of
own increasingly important to some consumers “didn’t mind whether or
18 countries grew GM crops
decisions consumers. not they ate GM food.”
Despite some early success stories
in 2003 The annual Food Standard Agency
with the introduction of GM food to • One in two Soybean plants survey for 2003 showed that
Britain a combination of high profile and one in five cotton unprompted, only one in 20 people
media stories and a feeling that plants grown commercially cites GM as a food issue, and this rose
consumers had become distanced from are GM to only one in five when prompted.
agriculture, together with a general The EC Eurobarometer survey of
lack of understanding of risk analysis, 2003 clearly expressed what
led to supermarket removal of GM consumers expected of new GM
foodstuffs from their shelves. ABC thus represents a single, products if they were to support them
transparent and accountable voice for (see Figure 2).
the industry’s response the biotechnology industry and was The IGD Consumer Watch survey
In January 2002, the Agricultural formed in response to public demand from last year looked at how
Biotechnology Council (ABC) was for more open and accessible consumers would use the new
information on GM crops. The industry labelling requirements when it came
recognised that people wanted to to their shopping habits.
know more about the science behind Interestingly, whilst 13% of people
biotechnology, they wanted to know would actively avoid GM ingredients, a
that the industry was effectively similar number of people would
regulated, and they wanted to be able welcome GM products in the
to choose whether or not to buy supermarket. Also, 47% stated that
clearly labelled GM products. An they never looked at product
immediate aim of ABC was therefore ingredients on labels.
clear – there was a need to address
this knowledge gap by supporting and food safety
encouraging fair debate. Many of the perceived consumer
Nearly two years later, significant concerns regarding food safety and

Figure 1: Global planting of GM crops

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the latter case, for example, co- Sarah Harvey

existence is essential since the oilseed Speck and
used as an industrial raw material is Julian Little are
toxic to people. representatives
on the
a question of consumer Agricultural
choice? Biotechnology
Figure 2: What would
make consumers more Real choice means people being able Council
likely to purchase to make informed decisions between
products produced using different
forms of agriculture.
Currently, UK farmers cannot grow
GM crops commercially and a lack of
GM food on the supermarket shelves
denies consumers the right to choose
the environment have been played out the standard tools of plant breeding foods produced using this technology.
by sections of the media, despite an and organic or conventional Should consumers have the choice
increasing wealth of information. agricultural practices”. whether to eat GM food or not?
The recent publication of the report If a new foodstuff is deemed to be
by the UK GM Science Review has co-existence between “at least as safe” as its current
dismissed claims that there was little different forms of agriculture equivalent, if it is produced in a way
or no evidence to support the premise With new legislation regarding the that is highly regulated, if it is readily
that the current GM crops are safe. registration and testing of GM crops recognised by endorsable and
Nearly 700 publications were and food enshrined in law, together enforceable labelling, surely its success
reviewed in this process, and the report with stringent regulations on in the marketplace sound be decided
points out that the UK and Europe have traceability and labelling, many of the by consumers. Conducting market
a very strict science-based regulatory pressure groups see the ‘co-existence’ research without consumers having the
regime, which ensures that today’s GM issue as being the next battlefield, option to choose GM products is flawed
products are at least as safe and painting a gloomy, almost as this research measures what people
nutritious as other foods, for example: apocalyptic, scenario where GM crops say they will do (as ‘citizens’), rather
“...the Panel concludes that the risks dislodge all other forms of agriculture, than what they actually do in reality
to human health from GM crops including organic farming, from the (as ‘consumers’).
currently on the market are very low.” UK. Is such a battle really necessary On the other hand, to deny
and is this scenario really likely? The consumers the right to choose whether
developing countries evidence suggests otherwise. to buy a GM product (as millions of
“If anyone tells you that GM is going to Field trials of GM crops have been people do around the world today)
feed the world, tell them that it is carried out in the UK since the mid- despite the food and environmental
not,” says Stephen Smith, former 1980s, whilst more extensive trials, safety tests having been carried out,
chairman of ABC and head of Syngenta under the Farm Scale Evaluation the experience of 18 other countries
Seeds. He dismissed the notion that GM programme have been running since who have been growing GM crops
crops could single-handedly solve the 1999. During this time, no farmer has commercially, and the legislation and
world’s food problems – it might lost accreditation for a crop or farm stringent regulation already in place,
therefore appear that the agricultural due to its proximity to a GM field cannot be right.
biotechnology industry has reversed its trial. In addition, according to one of When it comes to decisions
belief in the benefits of GM the UK organic accreditation bodies, surrounding food, the government
technology; it has not. However, the the Soil Association, there is little or must be led by sound scientific facts.
industry does recognise that simple no organic oilseed rape or maize Decisions made otherwise completely
messages, for or against GM do not grown commercially in the UK. undermine the work of bodies such as
reflect reality. This is no coincidence but is a the Food Standards Agency, and at the
Smith went on to explain, “To feed result of a carefully-managed end of the day, undermine the UK’s
the world takes political and financial stewardship programme based on a position as a science-based economy.
will – it’s not about production and set of protocols produced by the
distribution”. industry body SCIMAC (Supply Chain
Again, this view has gained Initiative on Modified Agricultural
significant support from a recent report Crops). Using these protocols, farmers
by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics have successfully reduced the cross-
into the ethics of GM crops in pollination to well below the
developing countries, which concluded threshold for labelling (currently 1%).
that “GM crops can contribute to In the case of oilseed rape, for
substantial progress in improving example, these have included a
agriculture” and that they “can also be separation distance between a GM
used to prevent environmental crop and a non-GM crop. Such an idea
degradation, and to address specific is not new and is based on the real
ecological and agricultural problems experience of farmers who produce
which have proved less responsive to industrial oilseed rape in the UK. In

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