During 1997, the Institute of Grocery Distribution was one of many organisations that produced information for consumers on GM food. The text below is an HTML facsimile of one of their 1998 factsheets. Please note that it is now out-of-date, and has been included here purely for historical interest.
Do we need genetic modification?
Genetic modification offers potential to overcome some aspects of modern farming that are less acceptable to consumers and have a negative impact on the environment, e.g. the use of pesticides and weed killers (also known as herbicides). Genetic modification can also be used to:
Will less chemicals be needed for weed and pest control?
Crop plants can be genetically modified to become disease and/or pest resistant which may mean that fewer chemicals are required for pest control.
Crop plants can also be made herbicide tolerant. As most herbicides only control selected weeds, a number of different herbicides have to be used during the season. The broad spectrum herbicides usually cannot be used as the crop is also affected. The herbicide tolerant plants, however, allow farmers to use these broad spectrum herbicides and hence decrease the number of herbicide sprays used.
Some crops can be genetically modified to confer tolerance to such a herbicide. This should allow a single, less toxic herbicide to be used in place of several herbicides, providing more efficient weed control and potentially, lower cost.
Why don't we overcome weed, insect and disease problems by farming less intensively?
There are alternatives to chemical controls, such as mechanical methods for weed control, which are used in organic systems. However, they are labour intensive methods which increase the cost of production. It is unlikely to be feasible to produce the quantities of food required at an acceptable price to the majority of consumers by organic methods.
A new method of farm management, called Integrated Farm Management, aims to reduce applications of chemicals by optimising the combination and timing of all farm management activities. Genetic modification is considered to offer great potential in this type of system.
Can disease be detected earlier?
Diagnostic kits developed using biotechnology techniques should provide accurate, sensitive, quick and reliable diagnosis of certain diseases. Farmers will therefore be able to detect specific pests more easily and apply the appropriate quantity and correct pesticide to combat disease at an earlier stage.
Agrochemicals can then be applied only when required, potentially reducing the total amount of chemicals applied to the land.
Crop production costs could be reduced as a consequence.
Can cleaner raw materials be made for industry?
Genetically modified plants are being developed which produce industrial biodegradable raw materials, which would reduce dependency on non-renewable resources.
For example, oilseed rape is being genetically modified to produce raw materials for the nylon and detergent industries. These materials are renewable and more environmentally friendly than their petrochemical alternatives.
Genetically modified micro-organisms have been developed to produce biodegradable plastics which are less harmful to the environment.
Can genetic modification help the environment?
Micro-organisms are already being used to clean up the environment from oil spills and genetic modification could enhance this process. There is also the potential to remove pesticides and heavy metals from contaminated soil in the future.
Are there any risks?
Environmental risks are assessed by the Government's independent expert committee, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), before genetically modified plants can be grown outside. These include testing for:
The EU has published proposals which would require genetically modified products such as maize and soya to be constantly monitored when grown commercially. These proposals are currently awaiting approval by EU ministers.
Will genetic modification reduce genetic diversity?
It has been claimed that genetic modification will reduce genetic diversity by concentrating on fewer, better varieties.
Other claims are that it will increase biodiversity by creating new varieties. Geneticists are reliant on the gene pool for variance.
Is it true that new genes can 'escape' into the environment?
Cross pollination between plants is impossible to control in a field situation and genes can be transferred from genetically modified plants to wild relatives. There is concern that this could result in herbicide tolerance and other new characteristics occurring in weeds. Information about this is collected through field trials and is assessed by ACRE.
How will herbicide tolerant weeds be controlled?
Some environmental groups are concerned that genes for herbicide tolerance, will appear in weedy relatives making them impossible to control. This depends on the presence of weedy relatives.
There are no weedy relatives of soya in the US but many of oilseed rape. However, if a genetically modified plant becomes a weed in subsequent crops, weed control compounds will be restricted for farmers.
For more information
Other fact sheets available from the Institute of Grocery Distribution are:
For further information, contact your retailer's or manufacturer's customer care department or contact:
Food and Drink Federation, PO Box 6927, London, E3 3NZ.
MAFF Helpline, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food, Whitehall Place, London, SW1A 2HH.
The Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG has produced a statement entitled 'Genetically modified plants for food use' which is available on receipt of an SAE.
© Institute of Grocery Distribution, 1998.