GM versus conventional breeding
EXTRACT: The first generation of GM crops has failed to produce higher yields. It is a case of no jam today.
What about jam tomorrow? GM scientists are working on ideas such as carbon 3 to carbon 4 conversion, GM nitrogen-fixing crops, drought-tolerant crops and saline-tolerant crops. However, despite two decades of research that has cost billions of pounds, their work has produced no results. As with the Queen of Hearts, if we are looking for jam, today never comes.
By contrast, traditional plant breeding has produced a sustained rise in yields the world over. In his motion, Rob Gibson draws attention to the present benefits and future potential for Scotland of using traditional plant breeding. Such methods allow us to produce nutritious and blight-resistant potatoes, and cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives to expensive imported soya...
Non-transgenic methods and conventional plant breeding produce clear benefits. Given that these methods depend on genes that are already present in a species, they can be used to motivate the preservation of old varieties -- in other words, they can be used to breed and encourage diversity.
Conventional Plant Breeding
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-3205, in the name of Rob Gibson, on supporting conventional plant breeding. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament welcomes a growing body of evidence that Scottish farmers, crofters and growers can benefit from the results of successful experiments to produce home-grown food for both animals and humans that does not rely on transgenic modification of plant material; also welcomes the recent work of the Scottish Crop Research Institute in producing highly nutritious purple-pigmented potatoes; applauds the SÃ¡rvÃ¡ri Research Trust based at Bangor University that confirms that blight-resistant SÃ¡rpo potatoes, which were successfully trialed in the Black Isle, are suitable for Scottish conditions; recalls that the Scottish Agricultural College has backed an international research collaboration on the Green Pig project, which plans to use home-grown legume varieties to reduce reliance on imported and expensive soya bean meal and so reduce costs for Scottish livestock producers; notes the scientific analysis of Dr John Fagan of Global ID Group, which shows that, although non-GM pig feed costs a bit more than GM feed because of feed-to-meat conversion efficiency, when using non-GM feed the actual cost per animal is lower, and therefore believes that a conventional plant breeding policy is an essential basis for the Scottish national food and drink policy, which itself dovetails with the conclusions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development that small-scale farming and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current world food crisis.
Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, in which I have declared my membership of the Soil Association and the Scottish Crofting Foundation.
This debate makes a timely call to all Scottish food producers and consumers to note with pride the strength of conventional plant breeding here and across the globe in providing food for humans and for the livestock that we rear for food. With the dramatic rise in food prices worldwide in 2008, adequate and lasting methods of agricultural production received a new impetus. Increasing extremes of weather create increasingly difficult conditions, yet yields must be increased. At the same time, agriculture must meet new demands for energy production as part of the attempt to reduce greenhouse gases. That challenge was discussed by Professor Jessel of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, who said that all countries face the same problems. He argued for ecological and nature conservation solutions. He questioned whether biotechnological solutions such as genetic modification of plants should contribute to the lasting protection of world food supplies.
Last year, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, the United Nations' agricultural equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that data on a range of genetically modified crops indicate highly variable yields. Although the IAASTD was reluctant to rule out genetically modified crops in future, it rightly concluded that, if the multimillion pound investment by corporations in transgenic research and development had been applied to improving conventional methods of local food production and distribution, the current world food crisis would have been more successfully addressed.
Small-scale farming and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current world food crisis. Just last week, we heard that non-GM drought-resistant maize is being planted in Malawi. Also, demand for non-GM soya in producer states in Brazil and Argentina, as well as the USA, is on the increase. Further, the largest dairy producer in Germany, Campina, insists on traditional feed methods using grass, rapeseed and lupins and has highlighted those conventional methods in a television advertising campaign. Its approach is a response to consumer demand across Europe and in many other nations that favour organic, local and conventional food.
In Scotland, the Scottish Crop Research Institute near Dundee has launched conventional plant breeding successes including an environmentally sound potato, Vales Sovereign, that needs less water and fertiliser than other varieties. It is also resistant to high levels of disease and is cheap and easy to grow. It was commercialised by Tesco.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently funded a five-year trial of lupins for livestock feed as a substitute for imported soya because the European Union livestock industry imports 77 per cent of its protein requirements, of which 98 per cent is soya bean meal from Brazil and Argentina, both of which are major producers of GM varieties.
Last year, the Scottish Agricultural College backed an international research collaboration called the green pig project, which plans to use home-grown legume varieties to reduce reliance on imported and expensive soya bean meal and so reduce costs for Scottish livestock producers. Further, the scientific analysis done by Dr John Fagan shows that although non-GM pig feed costs a bit more than GM feed, the actual cost per animal is lower when non-GM feed is used because of feed-to-meat conversion efficiency. I arranged for him to discuss his findings with leaders of the National Farmers Union of Scotland last week here in Parliament, and I believe that trials could be replicated on Scottish farms.
Growers want blight-resistant strains. Indeed, in January's issue of The Kitchen Garden magazine, Colin Randel says that
"blight resistance ... is the 'holy grail'."
The new SÃ¡rpo potato varieties, which were bred in Hungary and selected in Wales by the SÃ¡rvÃ¡ri Research Trust, have extremely high resistance to late-blight disease. There are two varieties on the United Kingdom national list: SÃ¡rpo Mira and Axona. Several more with different end-uses are being trialled at present. Those new varieties have an exceptionally light carbon footprint and are able to resist viruses, smother weeds and resist drought. They can also be stored without refrigeration. They are, of course, conventionally bred and were trialled, as my motion indicates, in the Black Isle, near where I live.
Here is the rub, though: small, not-for-profit companies find it difficult to continue researching new varieties as governments have not provided enough support. SÃ¡rvÃ¡ri is said to benefit from royalties levied on sales of its seed potatoes. Big producers such as Caithness Potatoes Ltd under Jack Dunnett and the Scottish Crop Research Institute gain royalties as varieties are grown on larger and larger acreages, but even Caithness Potatoes Ltd barely survived in the early stages of breeding. Now, SÃ¡rpo varieties will not earn substantial royalties until they are able to supply thousands of tonnes of seed. That will take several more years. In the meantime, funding is a never-ending problem.
This year, 70 tonnes of SÃ¡rpo potatoes are being planted in gardens around the United Kingdom, but since commercialisation was privatised under the Tories 20 years ago, subsidies from sales to put into new plant development rely on commercial sponsorship, such as that received for Vales Sovereign, which bulked up sales from 25,000 tonnes of potatoes in 2008 to the more than 40,000 tonnes that are expected this year.
Here is the crunch of the debate. We have the research capabilities in Scotland. We have various crops that can provide food and fodder from conventional sources. We have a Scottish food and drink policy that supports the production of local food and the export of prime quality foodstuffs. Policy is needed to encourage the process from breeding to commercial production. Our top researchers can apply marker-assisted selection in the breeding process, which is a high-tech conventional means to develop robust strains.
Too often, research has been financed by the multinational biotech companies. Huge sums have been spent that have sown a mere 0.06 per cent of Europe's fields with non-food GM crops such as maize, cotton and oilseed. Worldwide, that amounts to a mere 2.4 per cent of cultivated crops. Such a poor return for such large financial inputs is obscene.
To echo Professor Jessel, we in Scotland support ecologically and socially acceptable solutions. Environmentally friendly methods are already available, which are sustainable, secure and increase yields through smart breeding. Those yields will contain many genes and depend on a complex of local conditions, such as ground and climate, and do not need transgenic transfer. Such conventional breeding methods promise not only less risk but cheaper solutions. We can provide jobs and food security by applying those methods in Scotland.
Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): I congratulate Rob Gibson on securing the debate. It is important that our farmers and crofters develop farming techniques that fit with what the consumer requires and take into account our global responsibilities in relation to the environment and climate change. We have to use science in all those areas. We must always follow the precautionary principle, while recognising that scientific development helps our food producers. That is especially important when we face global food shortages.
Many of our current crops would not exist without the application of scientific research to crop production, but there has been a concern about genetic modification. Those who are committed to GM would say that that concern is due to ignorance and that the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls. It is clear that the issue is complex. Without research, we are unable to assert arguments on either side, so we must carry out research. Without rigorously researched facts, we are unable to assess the arguments properly.
While carrying out research, we must ensure that the setting in which it occurs is secure and that it does not jeopardise our wider industry. Given that I represent the Highlands and Islands, I am bound to recognise the way that crofting plays its part in good environmental practice. In Scotland as a whole, we have a reputation for high environmental and welfare standards. Research projects have to be mindful of that and ensure that that reputation is protected.
We also have to reward our farmers and crofters for good practice. To get the full benefit of that, we need local procurement. In the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee this morning, we heard about the need for local procurement for the pig industry. Local procurement must encompass our whole farming industry. Stuart Ashworth of Quality Meat Scotland told us that public authorities have to show their commitment to Scottish producers; they can do that through local procurement.
There is good practice by some health authorities and councils, but that is the exception rather than the rule. We must ensure that such practice is normal. Local procurement supports our local producers and mitigates climate change caused by shipping food long distances. It is disappointing that Highlands and Islands Enterprise has cut funding to the local food network at a time when it should be encouraging that approach. I urge the minister to ask it to revisit that decision. She should go further, and establish organisations to promote local food and advise public sector bodies on local procurement.
Rob Gibson: How the Highlands and Islands local food network is organised plays a part in the discussions about how it should function. The member should try to find out about that before she blames the loss of money from HIE.
Rhoda Grant: I hear what Rob Gibson says, but it is important to consider local food networks and how to promote local procurement. I am pretty sure that he does not disagree with any of that.
When we work with scientists we must engage with the widest range of experts, from those who work on organic production to those who are involved in increasing yields, but ensure that our practices are environmentally friendly. We also need to consider the health benefits that can be derived from using science in our farming industry, such as better nutrition and farming in ways that reduce the fat in meat products.
Food production must be undertaken hand in hand with science. We must proceed with caution and with safeguards in place and we must have incentives for local procurement. In that way, we will strike the balance between protecting our planet and feeding our people.
John Scott (Ayr) (Con): I declare an interest as a farmer and as a grower of crops””mainly grassland and heather for animal consumption. I, too, congratulate Rob Gibson on lodging his wide-ranging motion at a time when food production is climbing to the top of the political agenda. Were it not for the recession, it would be the issue of the decade.
The food that is produced””or the lack of it””will be an issue long after the recession has been sorted out, as the world's population is to grow from 6 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2050. The worldwide landmasses that are capable of food production decrease annually because climate change is creating deserts and producing sea-level rises, so this is an appropriate time to discuss the issue.
It is certain that future generations will not forgive us if we leave them not only a bankrupt country, but a country that has again lost its strategic ability to feed itself. UK self-sufficiency in food production is at its lowest level for decades.
It is important that all progress and all science are considered in plant breeding. As members would expect, Conservatives welcome SCRI's production of purple-pigmented potatoes and applaud the SÃ¡rvÃ¡ri Research Trust, which is based at Bangor University, on its sterling and hugely important work on blight-resistant potatoes. We, too, applaud the SAC's green pig project to produce home-grown legumes and reduce reliance on imported soya meal. We also commend all the other developmental work that Rob Gibson mentioned.
However, we must ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to address the problems that we are likely to face in achieving sufficient quantities of food for livestock and human consumption in the future. Are we doing enough to persuade Scotland's world-class and world-leading scientific plant development community to remain here?
The elephant in the room is, of course, genetically modified food, which Rob Gibson and Rhoda Grant mentioned. Given the changing circumstances that I have outlined, the time has come to face up to impending global food shortages. The debate must be had””and it must be based on science and not emotion””about how our generation proposes to leave the world a better place than we found it.
The luxury of full bellies in Europe for the past 25 years has dulled the Government's need and ability to take long-term strategic and pragmatic decisions about research into food production and other matters. The current recession and currency weakness are a wake-up call. Alarm bells must start to ring soon in Governments in the UK, where self-sufficiency in food production has dropped from 78 per cent in 1996 to 57 per cent today. The Rural Affairs and Environment Committee received evidence from the Farm Animal Welfare Council that
"U.K. self-sufficiency in pig meat has fallen from 84% in 1998, to an all time low of 50% in 2006"
and heard evidence this morning that the figure has fallen further since then.
We support conventional plant breeding and development in all its forms. We do so, notwithstanding the questions that were raised in an article in the New Scientist of 9 February 2009 on the development of Canola, a herbicide-resistant variety of oilseed rape, which relies on a single-gene mutation rather than a two-gene mutation but which is nonetheless conventionally bred. We now have to look further, towards the horizon. We must debate, discuss and decide on all and every sort of scientific approach to crop development and not limit ourselves to a purely conventional approach.
I welcome the motion in Rob Gibson's name, and I commend him for stimulating this discussion tonight.
Bill Wilson (West of Scotland) (SNP): In welcoming the motion, I confess that I had a hard time writing my speech. The evidence against transgenic crops is so comprehensive that it was difficult to decide what to include and exclude. I want to make it clear from the outset that, when I refer to GM, I am referring primarily to transgenic organisms.
I will restrict my remarks to GM's alleged potential to eliminate hunger, its effects on biodiversity, and its alleged potential to reduce the price of food and feed. First, I turn to the argument that GM can eliminate hunger. In a recent report, the IAASTD concluded that GM is not the answer to world hunger. When the study's director, who is also the chief scientist at DEFRA, was asked whether GM would solve world hunger, his reply was that
"The simple answer is no."
GM will fail to eliminate hunger because hunger and poverty are caused primarily by unfair trading practices and rules, lack of access to land, credit and education, shortages of water and poor infrastructure. Hunger and poverty are caused primarily by those factors””not by the supposed inferiority of conventional crops.
Another major reason why GM will not eliminate hunger is that it does not increase yields. Several researchers have reported that Roundup Ready soya, the leading GM crop, has a lower yield than its non-GM equivalent. Indeed, GM soya is not the only crop to fail the test. Maize that is modified by the addition of bacterial genes to make it pest resistant has been found to take longer to reach maturity and have up to 12 per cent lower yield and higher moisture levels than its non-GM equivalent. If GM crops benefit anyone, it is the companies that make them.
The first generation of GM crops has failed to produce higher yields. It is a case of no jam today. What about jam tomorrow? GM scientists are working on ideas such as carbon 3 to carbon 4 conversion, GM nitrogen-fixing crops, drought-tolerant crops and saline-tolerant crops. However, despite two decades of research that has cost billions of pounds, their work has produced no results. As with the Queen of Hearts, if we are looking for jam, today never comes.
By contrast, traditional plant breeding has produced a sustained rise in yields the world over. In his motion, Rob Gibson draws attention to the present benefits and future potential for Scotland of using traditional plant breeding. Such methods allow us to produce nutritious and blight-resistant potatoes, and cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives to expensive imported soya. Indeed, it would further strengthen the environmental argument for choosing Scottish pork, making it easier for public procurement policies to support Scottish farmers. Non-transgenic methods and conventional plant breeding produce clear benefits. Given that these methods depend on genes that are already present in a species, they can be used to motivate the preservation of old varieties””in other words, they can be used to breed and encourage diversity.
Not surprisingly, I turn to biodiversity. The effects of GM on biodiversity that have been identified thus far include direct toxic effects on non-target insects and indirect impacts on the food chain. In the UK, large-scale field research has found that herbicide-resistant crops reduce the number of weed seeds on which insects and birds depend. Those crops could be approved only if massive damage to biodiversity is considered to be acceptable.
In Europe, three pro-GM sectors””led, of course, by the biotech industry””have attempted to implicate the European Union's anti-GMO policies in the rising price of animal feed. The evidence does not support that. Monsanto's Roundup Ready””or RR””GM soya is the only animal feed that is available for commercial cultivation. Indeed, it has full approval for import into the EU for human and animal feed and has been freely entering the EU animal-feed market for over a decade. RR soya is not used extensively in human food because of commercial decision making by EU food manufacturers and retailers””in other words, emphatic public rejection.
Price rises affect every country around the world, even the United States of America, which has the most permissive system of GM approvals. The root causes of those price rises are numerous. There is the shift from food and feed production to biofuels, increased demand for soya beans, financial speculation, deregulation of agricultural markets, the rise in oil prices, and increased droughts and floods in grain-producing countries””the last of which can, arguably, be linked to climate change. It will not help if the EU weakens GMO laws.
At best, GM technology is redundant and a dead end. At worst, it amounts to a dangerous diversion of resources from cheaper and easier solutions””in other words, conventional breeding””to local and global problems. I commend the motion.
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): I will make an extremely brief contribution. I refer to my agricultural interests, which are declared in the register of interests.
I congratulate Rob Gibson on raising an all-important issue. However, as a sheep and cattle farmer in the Highlands and Islands, I, like many other hill farmers and crofters, despair of new measures such as double and electronic tagging, which will add yet more disincentives to an industry that is already grossly overregulated.
In the Highlands and Islands, farmers have had to suffer desperately low prices for lambs and calves for the past 10 years. Many of them have given up, and many more are considering simply abandoning their holdings. How can that be, when the price of food is doubling?
I am very worried for producers of seed potatoes. I spoke to some on the Black Isle who said that the proposed new EU directive to ban a vast amount of pesticides would make growing seed potatoes very difficult indeed. Those people have spent fortunes developing seed potatoes over centuries, and they supply many potato growers in the north-east of Scotland.
The World Bank estimates that food producers will need to grow 50 per cent more food by 2030 and an incredible 85 per cent more meat. Will the Scottish Government take note of those figures and encourage Scottish farmers to play their part in solving a global problem?
The Minister for Environment (Roseanna Cunningham): This has been quite a short debate but, in the main, it has been useful. Before picking up on some of the points that have been raised, I congratulate Rob Gibson on bringing the debate to the chamber, and I will echo him in speaking about the really good work that is going on in Scotland. Some of that work is not particularly well known, but perhaps it should be. In the Scottish Crop Research Institute we have had a major centre of excellence in crop research for a very long time, but I wonder how widely known that is in Scotland.
Rob Gibson is right to bring the subject to our attention. In doing so, he reminds us of how important conventional plant breeding has been and continues to be, which is easily forgotten in the big-business drive to push us all towards acceptance of GM. GM sometimes comes across as being part of the search for the holy grail, yet, if we pay attention to the news feeds, we know that it has many, many failures. As Rob Gibson mentioned, demand for non-GM varieties is on the up in countries that had seemed to be switching over to GM. The debate is being had already, and I say to Conservative members that, in my view, the GM side is losing the debate. That is because the experience of GM has not been the unalloyed success that some people would have us believe. I remind all members of that; Bill Wilson made some very telling points in that regard.
The danger is that all the focus on GM can blind us to the huge successes that are being achieved by conventional plant breeding. For example, SCRI is doing a great deal of potato research. Having a debate about tatties might seem a bit of a joke, but in a lot of countries they can be the difference between life and death. Since 1920, 72 new varieties have resulted from SCRI's work. Rob Gibson mentioned Vales Sovereign potatoes, which have been voted Tesco fresh product of the year 2008. They are good not just for consumers but for the environment because they require less water and fertiliser. That sort of promise is made by the GM companies but, in fact, the delivery is coming from conventional plant breeding.
I represent a Perthshire constituency, and I will crave members' indulgence to point out the brilliant work that is being done on raspberries, blackcurrants and blackberries, all of which are extremely important to our local economy. I think that, in the main, the SCRI varieties account for the overwhelming majority of the UK crops.
Conventional breeding delivers and is here to stay. Plant breeding will play a major part in ensuring future food security, no matter what the GM lobby would have us believe””and I believe that its view on that is a massive red herring, if red herrings can be non-genetically modified to get them to that colour.
In Scotland, we are very lucky to have a strong science-based research and development system. Every single pound of public money that is invested in plant research is returned to the economy 12 times over. We are also lucky to have world-leading research on conventional livestock genetics at the Scottish Agricultural College, which helps to maintain Scotland's reputation for excellence in livestock science.
The production of new plant varieties is important to farmers and consumers. Recent research has shown that 93 per cent of the increase in winter wheat yield between 1982 and 2007 was due to new varieties. The message is clear: with the benefit of new technologies, our plant and livestock breeders are making great strides in delivering new varieties that consumers want and the bigger yield that farmers need if they are to improve profitability while minimising environmental impact. Our plant and livestock breeders are doing that without recourse to the genetic modification to which people object.
The debate was not meant to be about GM, but I will say something about the Government's position. Members should make no mistake: we are totally and fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM crops in Scotland. However, that does not mean that we are against the development of new technologies or the use of new technologies to hasten the production of new conventional varieties. Much modern breeding, including Scottish Government-funded work, uses approaches such as molecular assisted breeding, whereby markers that are linked to important traits are identified. The method was supported in last year's IAASTD report. Scottish Government research funding supports such developments.
Scottish Government funding is also being used to examine new technologies to support conventional livestock breeding strategies, to select for a wider variety of traits, such as meat quality, animal health and welfare and environmental impact. We should not lose sight of that, although the Government respects the wishes of consumers who demand locally produced traditional and organic food.
Jamie McGrigor: Is the minister aware of the huge drop in the number of sheep and cattle in the Highlands and Islands during the past five years?
Roseanna Cunningham: I hope that the member is not suggesting that that is because we do not have GM””
Jamie McGrigor: GM is not part of that””
Roseanna Cunningham: If GM is not part of it, I wonder why the member got to his feet.
Consumers might go to supermarkets specifically to look for Sovereign potatoes, Glen Ample raspberries or Aberdeen Angus beef, but I have not heard one person complain that they cannot find GM food in our supermarkets. Moreover, I am certain that, if such food were available and labelled GM, consumers would give it a huge body swerve. The fact is that Scottish consumers simply do not want GM food of any kind, and they are not alone in that. In March last year, a survey in which 1,000 citizens throughout the 27 EU countries were asked about their attitudes towards the environment found that 57 per cent of respondents were apprehensive about GMOs and only 21 per cent were in favour.
There is evidence that opposition to GM foods in America is growing, not decreasing, although America was a great flag-waver for GM crops. In 2005, a Gallup poll found that 45 per cent of respondents were opposed to the use of GM in agriculture and food production. GM is losing the argument.
John Scott: Will the minister give way?
Roseanna Cunningham: I am coming to the end of my speech.
Our producers and processors depend on Scotland's international reputation for purity and quality. I say to people who are involved in Scotland's agriculture community that we compromise that at our peril. The reputation of Scottish products is high, and many of the plant varieties that I have mentioned are already being grown as commercial crops or trialled overseas by SCRI and its commercial partners. Such crops can be found throughout Europe and in China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
I am happy to confirm that support for conventional and scientific plant breeding will continue to be an important component of Scotland's food and drink policy. That will not include a move towards genetic modification of the sort that people object to so strongly.
Meeting closed at 17:33.