General situation of GM crops in the United Kingdom
Pilot survey conducted by the National Farmers Union (www.nfuonline.com) and Dr Penny Sparrow, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK
Almost 5 million hectares (ha) of agricultural land in the UK is used for growing crops. Cereals, such as wheat and barley make up almost 80 per cent of this. The UK is the fourth largest producer of cereals, sugarbeets and oilseed crops in the EU. Agriculture employs 466 000 people, representing 1.52 per cent of the workforce.
Wheat (1.94 million ha); barley (921 000 ha); oilseed rape (642 000 ha); potatoes (138 000 ha); sugarbeet (119 000 ha). Cereal production constraints include fungal diseases such as Septoria in wheat and net blotch in barley, leading to yield penalties of 10-40 per cent. Phoma stem canker is the most economically important oilseed rape disease, causing losses of up to 50 per cent. Potato late blight control requires several fungicide sprays each growing season, with a total cost to the industry of around £3bn per year.
The UK has a strong agricultural biotechnology R&D sector at universities, public institutes and independent research centres across the countries. Work focuses on increasing biotic stress tolerance in plants (pests and diseases) and abiotic stress tolerance such as drought. Field trials are ongoing for GM potatoes resistant to late blight, potatoes with nematode resistance, and for GM wheat that repels aphids. However, the number of applications for GM field trials in the UK has been declining steadily in the last decade, with only six field trial notifications submitted and authorised since 2006.
Agricultural policy is a largely devolved issue in the UK. For example, both the Scottish and Welsh government remain against GM crops, while the UK government is more supportive of GM technology. Current policy on GMOs asserts that farmers should have access to new technology and have the choice to adopt it, following scientific safety assessment and proportionate regulation. Consumers must be give choice through clear labeling.
Experiences of farmers
There are no commercial GM crops grown in the UK. In 2002-03, farmers across the UK participated in farm-scale evaluations of GM sugarbeet, oilseed rape and maize. Overall experiences were favorable in terms of the flexibility and potential cost reductions in weed management. Currently, the main concern UK farmers have with GM regulations and policies are about the impact on price and availability of imported protein-rich feedstuffs, particularly in the pig and poultry industry. This is due to the EU’s zero-tolerance approach to low-level presence of GMOs in commodity imports.