A focus on the economy and trade (particularly in light of forthcoming negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and the EU) has made a stronger political case for UK access to the products of genetic engineering.
Recent statements by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister are clearly designed to indicate to technology companies that the UK is ‘open for business.’ In addition, the UK government is keen to make the European Union regulatory system governing genetically engineered (GE) crops “more efficient and more effective”.
The UK has some of the largest and most efficient farms in Europe, but recent extreme weather events and a reduction in available fungicides and pesticides (as a result of an EU review) has left horticultural production vulnerable. The UK is keen to attract inward investment in plant science applications and capitalize on any growth opportunities presented by agricultural biotechnology.
As a policy response, the UK is developing a long-term agri-tech strategy focused on knowledge transfer and the application of technology to the agricultural sector. An initial indication of its scope is expected by mid 2013.
Despite the fact that the UK feed and livestock industries are protein-deficient, trade in these products continues to be erratic. Confidence to trade is wholly dependent on EU approval (for food and feed) for new GE crops grown outside the EU in the main supplier countries of Argentina, Brazil and USA. Low Level Presence (LLP) of unapproved GE events in bulk shipments remains a concern that dominates trade decisions, since the threshold for feed is very low at 0.1% (only for traits already in the EU approval pipeline) and continues to be zero tolerance for the food supply chain.
UK political leadership on this issue may give greater confidence to the food industry to incorporate more products of genetic engineering in the food chain. There is an increasing global adoption of biotech in crop production, a zero tolerance of unapproved biotech events in the food chain, and an extremely low tolerance in animal feed (0.1%) within EU law. These factors are affecting the availability and cost of non-biotech ingredients to the extent that several major supermarket chains and foodservice suppliers are reviewing their policies. This is creating a more favorable market for biotech animal feed. Incorporation of ingredients derived from biotech crops is happening on a case-by-case basis so that the cost-benefit analysis to consumers is clear.
With regard to consumer acceptance for biotechnology, there is a vocal minority opposed. However, most surveys show apathy and lack of knowledge by the general population, who rely heavily on supermarket chains to provide them with safe, quality food. There is a dominance of private label products in the UK market and an inherent trust (cultivated by the retailers) that they will “do the right thing” for their customers.
Generally, there are signs that the ground is shifting in the UK. Trade and even the mainstream media is increasingly making a case for the technology and calling on industry and the public to be more open-minded about potential benefits. There is a growing awareness that European consumers are buying meat from animals fed on biotech feed, and a growing acceptance that biotech crop derivatives in the food supply chain are inevitable, and to be managed, if not embraced.