Knowledge Hub

Agricultural biotechnology is the science by which you can genetically modify plants to produce improved crop and vegetable varieties. GM crops are grown from seeds which have been modified in a laboratory.
 

There are a number of exciting benefits which result from plant modifications of this kind which offer environment, consumer and economic improvements. Through the links above, you will find examples of how this technology is being used and developed in the global food chain to:
 

  • Help farmers grow more food, more sustainably;
  • Help farmers reduce their impact on resources and the environment;
  • And help farmers to meet specific challenges in the developing world.

 

In the tabs to the left you will find a database of useful statistics and information on the role and contribution of agricultural technology in the UK and around the world.

The myths around GM crops are also dispelled here.

George Freeman MP has announced the publication of a report by the Fresh Start Group, examining the impact of the EU on life sciences.

The report, 'The EU impact on the UK Life Science sector', finds that 'the rising tide of hostility to corporate biotechnology, expressed through increasingly powerful lobby groups with increasing influence in the EU legislative process, has started to have a serious impact on the EU and UK’s ability to secure investment.' It also highlights the fact the the EU approval system for GM crops is hampered by political interference, rather than making science-led, evidence-based decisions.

Here you will find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about agricultural biotechnology in general, and links to further information. For further information about agricultural technology research in the UK, please use  the tabs to the left.

An even more comprehensive list of FAQs about agricultural biotechnology around the world can be found on the EuropaBio website, or in the CropLife FastFacts database.

 

  1. What is GM technology?
  2. Are GM crops being grown in the UK?
  3. What can GM be used for?
  4. How are GM plants tested and approved?
  5. Is GM food safe?
  6. Do GM crops have an impact on biodiversity or the environment?
  7. Would the introduction of GM crops result in the spread of genes into non-GM and organic crops?
  8. What is the role of private companies in the development of GM crops?

 


1. What is GM technology?

"GM" stands for genetic modification. For thousands of years farmers have selected plants with the characteristics they want, such as extra seeds in a pod or the ability to survive in the cold. By crossing the best plants, they hoped to produce better varieties. GM allows chosen individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, including genes between non-related species. Such methods can be used to create GM crop plants.

 

 

Further information from Defra...


2. Are GM crops being grown in the UK?

In the UK, no GM crops are currently commercially cultivated - however several small scale trials are underway at public research institutes and through privately funded initiatives. In 2011, there were 72 trials notified to the EU GMO registration directive.

18 million farmers in 28 countries planted more than 181 million hectares in 2014, up from 175 million in 27 countries in 2013. 

GM is used extensively in North and South America but is also popular in India, China, Australia and several African countries. Use of the technology is limited in Europe but can be found in a number of countries including Spain, Portugal and Sweden.

Further information from the ISAAA...


3. What can GM be used for?

GM is currently used on a commercial level in crops such as:

  • Maize – with herbicide or insect resistance, and drought resistance
  • Cotton – modified to control damaging pests
  • Oilseed Rape – herbicide tolerant and high yielding hybrids
  • Soybean – herbicide resistant
  • Squash – virus resistant
  • Papaya – virus resistance
  • Sugar beet – resistant to herbicide
  • Alfalfa – herbicide resistant

Second generation GM products with potential include:

  • Cassava – biofortified with vitamins and minerals
  • Tomatoes – longer shelf life, increased resistance to pests and health benefits
  • Blood oranges – with health benefits
  • Rice – salt tolerant, zinc-enriched
  • Potatoes – with extra protein, blight-resistant
  • Wheat – aphid repellant
  • Cereals – high levels of zinc
  • Oilseed rape – with omega 3
  • Linseed – with omega 3
  • Eucalyptus – frost resistance

Further information from the Croplife Fast Facts database...


4. How are GM plants tested and approved?

The testing process is rigorous and prescribed by law. Any GM foods and feeds intended for sale or cultivation in the European Union are subject to a rigorous scientific safety assessment which is undertaken by independent scientists from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). However, the final decision for authorisation still rests with EU Member States, which vote on European Commission proposals. No GM crops are currently approved for cultivation in the UK although they are grown elsewhere in the EU.

Further information from the European Food Safety Authority...


     GM is currently used on a commercial level in crops such as:GM is currently used on a commercial level in crops such as:GM is currently used on a commercial level in crops such as: 6. 6.555 5. Is GM food safe?

There is no evidence to suggest that GM food is any less safe than conventional food. In fact, it is tested far more rigorously than many conventional products. Over 2 trillion meals have been consumed over the past 13 years containing GM ingredients without a single substantiated case of ill health.

In 2011, the European Commission released a compendium of 50 research projects on the safety of GMOs over the last decade. The Commission funded research from 130 research projects involving 500 independent research groups over 25 years, concluding that “There is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Further information from the European Commission...


6. Do GM crops have an impact on biodiversity or the environment?

There is increasing evidence that the use of GM crops can actually increase biodiversity when used with sustainable crop management techniques as less tillage of the soil is required and less spraying is required to reduce pestilence and the presence of weeds. This can reduce soil erosion, increase the amount of organic matter present in topsoil, reduce water run-off, and maintain bird populations.

There is no evidence to suggest that GM crops have a negative impact on the environment and there is plenty of scope for the technology to contribute to meeting the challenge of climate change. Usage is heavily regulated in Europe with legally enforceable limits on separation distances between conventional and GM crops and rigorous regulations placed on the presence of GM matter in shipments of conventional seeds and animal feed arriving into the EU.

Importantly, a new 2014 comprehensive global meta-analysis, on 147 published biotech crop studies over the last 20 years worldwide confirmed the significant and multiple benefits that biotech crops have generated over the past 20 years, 1995 to 2014; on average GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. These findings corroborate earlier and consistent results from other annual global studies which estimated increases in crop productivity valued at US$133.3 billion for the period 1996-2013. Source- ISAAA

Further information on biodiversity and GM crops...


7. Would the introduction of GM crops result in the spread of genes into non-GM and organic crops?

Cross pollination between GM and non-GM plants is clearly a possibility if there are no attempts to manage this. In the UK, there have been extensive field trials using quantities of GM crops. However, as a result of careful coexistence measures put in place by the industry, there were no incidents of cross-pollination above the 0.9% threshold put in place by European law.

In the United States, a thriving organic sector exists alongside the use of GM crops providing consumers with genuine choice on the sourcing of their food. There is no evidence to suggest that GM would have a negative impact on the organic sector in the UK apart from through reduced food price inflation on non-organic products. The organic sector successfully coexists with conventional agriculture and could do so with alongside farmers using GM, given good agricultural practice.

Further information on co-existence from Scimac...


8. What is the role of private companies in the development of GM crops?

Much of the pioneering work on biodiversity has been carried out by public sector research institutes in partnership with companies. These collaborations have resulted in significant advances in our understanding of plant sciences; but in order to ensure products reach the market place investments of millions of pounds are often required. Companies are ideally placed to raise the finance in order for these advances to be turned into marketable products; in a similar way in which new pharmaceutical products are made available to patients, or new innovations in the manufacturing sector benefit consumer choice.

There is healthy competition in this sector. Agriculture is no different to other productive sectors of the economy in the way in which the private sector operates within a competitive market place. Properly regulated, GM technologies pose no threat to the food chain and indeed would lead to greater efficiencies and consumer benefits.

For further information, please see the individual company tabs in the About ABC section.


 

 

10 useful facts about agricultural biotechnology and where to find further information:


1. GM crops are being developed to help fight malnutrition

For example, Pioneer Hi-Bred International is developing sorghum to contain more vitamin A, zinc and iron. More info...


2. GM crops can increase farmers’ income

Since 1996, farmers globally have gained over €44 billion in farm income due to GM crops. More info...


3. Drought tolerant crops are expected to be available in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2017

It is hoped that may provide yield increases of 20 to 50 percent under moderate drought conditions. See the Academic Research tab, left, for more info...


4. GM crops are safe to eat

Globally, more than two trillion meals containing GM ingredients have been eaten over the last 15 years without one health incident having been identified.


5. GM crops reduce CO2 emissions

This is due to less tillage being required. In 2011, GM crops led to global emissions savings of 23 billion kg of CO2 or removing 10.2 million cars from the road. More info...


6. GM crops reduce the pressure of farming on fragile marginal land

This is because GM crops can improve yields by six to thirty per cent on the same amount of land. More info...


7. GM crops increase productivity

If biotech crops had not been available during the period 1996 to 2011, an additional 108.7 million hectares of conventional crops would have been required to produce the same tonnage. More info...


8. GM can help vital crops to be resistant to diseases

For example, in Uganda bananas are being developed to resist Banana Xanthomonas Wilt, which hits up to 80 per cent of farms and sometimes wipes out entire fields. More info...


9. Bio crops may one day produce ‘edible vaccines’

GM crops are being developed to produce vaccines against certain diseases. For example, bananas are being developed to vaccinate against Hepatitis B. More info...


10. GM crops are already helping the developing world

In 2012, 17 million farmers grew over 170 million hectares of GM crops in more than 30 different countries. Over 90 per cent of these were resource-poor farmers and just under half of the land grown with GM varieties was in developing countries. More info...