8 April 2005

UK: Sustainibility benefits key to public support for “Non-Food” agriculture

But fears of a "back-door” route to the introduction of GM crops

People taking part in research published Thursday 7 April by the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) think that non-food crops could play an important role in the future of UK agriculture, as long as the benefits can be clearly demonstrated. The Commission has carried out an in-depth study of public attitudes towards non-food agriculture – a set of agricultural activities ranging from producing ethanol from crops to use as fuel for cars to “pharming” plants modified to produce new medicines – and the use of biotechnology in it.

The study, a public engagement exercise conducted for the Commission by the consultants Corr Willbourn through a series of workshops and seminars in urban and rural parts of the UK, found that many people felt that non-food farming might be acceptable if it helped to protect the environment and provide a boost for British farmers. But when possible roles for biotechnology in non-food agriculture were discussed, many felt strongly that it could be a “back-door” route for the introduction of GM crops into the UK, which they did not welcome.

When the study began, most people taking part did not know what non-food agriculture involved. After examining individual case studies and discussing the issues with people working in the field there was a general feeling that there were advantages to be gained but a strong desire for the supposed benefits to be examined very closely, including looking at potential alternatives and the impact on jobs, health, the countryside and the wider environment. Environmental values, and a desire to act more sustainably, were notable.

GM – which was what most understood by “biotechnology” – became a dominant issue in the study despite the fact that many non-food uses of crops do not require it, and other applications of biotechnology exist. There was a strong cynicism about the motives behind using GM in non-food agriculture. People were only interested in cultivating GM crops if they considered the potential benefit overwhelming – such as a cure for cancer or HIV-AIDS. Objections to the use of GM organisms within tightly controlled laboratory conditions were less strong, and people generally felt that GM research should continue.

The study also showed great concern for the traditional British countryside, which was thought to be under threat from many different pressures and – to a lesser degree – concern for the future of farmers who were seen as the key to the survival of the countryside. People appreciated that some developments were inevitable but they wanted to see the growth of housing estates, out of town shopping centres and road building kept to a minimum.

Notes to editors:

1. The Biotechnology Commission was set up in July 2000 to provide Government with independent strategic advice on developments in biotechnology and their implications for agriculture and the environment. It reports to Ministers in the UK Government and the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

2. The Biotechnology Commission would have normally used the study as a starting point to do more of its own analysis. Since the Commission is being wound up at the end of April, this will not be possible, but the Commission hopes that policy makers and others involved in non food agriculture, biotechnology, and also in rural affairs more generally will consider the study’s findings and carry them forward.

3. The Commission undertook a series of individual case studies (Appendix 4 of the report) as specific examples of how non–food agriculture could be employed and the kind of issues it might raise. They included:

  • Bioethanol
  • Building materials
  • Dental caries and non-food agriculture
  • Dutch Elm disease resistant trees
  • Energy crops – short rotation coppice willow and poplar
  • HIV microbes
  • Packaging materials
  • Phytoremediation of organic pollutants

4. Press calls to Pat Wilson on 07790 550026 or Paul van Heyningen on 020 7215 6925.

Source: Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) press release, April 7, 2005.

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