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Looking to Genetic Improvements for Sustainable Agriculture

Looking to Genetic Improvements for Sustainable Agriculture

24 July 2013

ANALYSIS - The EU needs to increase its production and productivity of plant biomass for food and feed and decrease its dependence on imports according to a new report from the European Academies Science Advisory Council, writes Chris Harris.

The report, Planting the Future: opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture, says that by reducing dependence on imports, the EU will reduce its regional and global environmental impact.

The report adds that by committing to agricultural innovation the EU agricultural sector will create jobs, benefit rural development and contribute more to the gross domestic product of each country

It says that biotechnology for crop improvement must be part of the developments.

Not only must the EU look to boosting its own agricultural sector but also help to develop and use innovative agriculture to tackle global needs and challenges.

“There is evidence that the EU is falling behind new international competitors in those applications, collectively termed crop genetic improvement technologies, for agricultural innovation,” the report says.

“This will have implications for the EU science base, plant breeding capacity, farmers’ income, competitiveness and growth as well as for food security, environment and the bioeconomy more broadly.

“The impacts of climate change and other environmental and societal changes are likely to compound the challenges for food security.

“The current policy objective to reduce pesticide and other chemical use is likely to have adverse consequences for agriculture unless crops can be protected from pests and diseases in other ways, for example by conferring genetic resistance.”

Science and technology are shown to be vital in driving agricultural innovation and EASAC does not shy away from recommending genetically modifies solutions to the challenges thrown up in the EU agricultural sector.

“GM techniques have revolutionised basic research in plants, leading to new understanding of processes such as disease resistance, photosynthesis, plant development and speciation. Applications of biotechnology for food and non-food crops can help to reduce reliance on non-renewable resources,” the report says.

However, the report’s authors have warned that current EU legislation has slowed progress in developing new tools for a more sustainable and intensified agriculture.

They say that the authorities will have to inspire the consumer to embrace new technologies and not allow the consumer to adopt a passive position.

They say that regulations should not hinder progress and taking too precautionary approach will pose a risk to global food security.

EASAC says that risk assessment must be science based and should focus on the product and not the technology and the group calls for simpler regulation.

The report warns that the current regulatory system over genetic modification in the EU encourages monopolies and it should be reformed to promote greater competition.

The EU also has to take a wider view and look at the potential benefits for developing and poorer nations such as those in Africa for the development on new technology and biotechnology.

It calls on the European Commission to look again at its regulatory framework and re-examine its policy objectives and it also calls on the scientific community to engage with the consumers, public bodies, food industry and NGOs not only over genetic modification but in plant breeding in general.

The report recommends a greater commitment to research and development and the formation of international partnerships.

Shortly after the report from EASAC was published, a new commitment to developing new technology was announced in the UK.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this week launched a £160 million initiative to develop cutting edge technologies.

The Agricultural Technologies Strategy follows the recent plans for automotive, construction, aerospace and other key sectors to secure sustainable future growth in the economy.

Reflecting the sentiments in the EASAC report, which was published just a few weeks before the initiative was announced, Defra Minister for Science Lord De Mauley said: "We face a global challenge to feed the rapidly increasing population in a way which is affordable and sustainable.

"We are investing in technologies that will enable British farmers to meet these challenges and take advantage of the growing demand in export markets for British food."

The recommendations in the report and the new approach to technology could be heralding a new dawn for agriculture in the EU.

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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