The adoption of genetically-modified (GM) crops in the UK could improve farm profitability where farmers face continued pest and weed pressures, a report commissioned by HGCA has found.
But where these pressures do not exist, there is no economic benefit from the technology the report concluded.
HGCA said the report, which can be viewed here, including a video discussion, showed GM crops could benefit farmers, consumers and the animal feed supply chain, as well as supporting UK competitiveness in the global marketplace.
It also found that GM crop production carries no negative environmental impacts compared to conventional cropping – and may offer environmental advantages.
The review examined evidence on overseas experience of GM adoption, pulling together data from more than 170 publications, reports and studies to explore possible scenarios for the UK.
Researchers at the University of Reading predicted the impact on UK farm gross margins of growing Insecticide Resistant (IR) maize and Herbicide Tolerant (HT) oilseed rape (OSR).
They found economic benefits to GM crops over conventional crops would apply only under continued pest and weed pressures.
In the absence of these pressures, the technology premium for GM seed and the cost of co-existence measures depressed gross margins, the researchers found.
However, in very severe pest and weed pressure situations, gross margins could increase by up to 15.2 per cent for continuous IR maize, 16.6 per cent for continuous HT OSR and d 10.2 per cent for HT OSR in a four crop rotation.
Other benefits identified included a cleaner crop following a GM crop, better soil condition and reduced weed burden returned to the land.
The researchers also analysed the environmental impacts of GM crops, based on evidence from countries where GM crops are already being produced.
It found that HT and IR traits reduced the amount of active ingredients applied in crop production, although for the risk of herbicide resistant weeds developing in response to HT crops ‘should not be ignored and may diminish this benefit if not managed appropriately’.
The use of IR crops as a pest management tool may reduce losses to insecticides of non-target organisms, the researchers found.
They also suggested a reduction in the frequency of farm machinery usage would result in less soil erosion, increased soil moisture retention, and reduced fuel use and GHG emissions.
Data from Spain and Portugal show co-existence measures have been effective in preventing gene transfer between GM and conventional species.
The researchers said implementation of the infrastructure to support a segregated feed supply chain would result initially in increased costs for the feed supply chain. But stakeholder consultation conducted as part of the review indicates there would be no long term or structural implications.
The UK feed supply chain is already using GM products in the manufacture of livestock feed.
HGCA’s Dr Vicky Foster said HGCA felt it was important to develop an ‘independent evidence-base, free from distortion and speculation’, to better prepare the industry for the implications of GM crop production, should the technology become available in the UK.
“We recognise that GM is an emotive subject but this report is specifically focused on the science, rather than consumer acceptability of GM products,” she said.
She acknowledged, however, that farmers and processors are reliant on consumer demand for their products and “Although the study demonstrates tangible benefits to farmers and the environment in certain GM crop production scenarios’, ultimately the decision rests in the hands of the consumer,” she said.
Friends of the Earth’s senior farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow said the report’s conclusions ‘do not chime with the evidence of growing GM crops around the world’.
“Growing GM maize and oilseed rape would be a disaster for British farmland wildlife, farmers and consumer choice,” she said.
She said he introduction of herbicide tolerant GM crops in the US has caused ‘severe weed management problems for farmers, and a surge in the amount of chemicals used on resistant weeds’.
She also cited recent evidence that maize pollen can travel much further than previously thought means it would be impossible to keep non-GM and organic maize free of contamination.
“The GM crops in the pipeline are now old technology that will exacerbate problems caused by intensive production,” she said.