The adoption of genetically-modified (GM) cereals and oilseeds crops could benefit farmers, consumers and the animal feed supply chain, while supporting UK competitiveness in the global marketplace, according to a new report .

The work was commissioned by HGCA, the cereals and oilseeds division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), to address key research questions around domestic adoption or non-adoption of GM technologies.

The report also finds that GM crop production carries no negative environmental impacts compared to conventional cropping – and may offer environmental advantages.

‘An evidence-based review on the likely economic and environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) cereals and oilseeds for UK agriculture’ examines the best available evidence on overseas experience of GM adoption, pulling together data from more than 170 publications, reports and studies to explore possible scenarios for the UK.

HGCA’s Dr Vicky Foster said: “This report is a gathering of evidence to inform future debate on the potential use of GM cereals and oilseeds in the UK.

“We felt it was important to develop an independent evidence-base, free from distortion and speculation, to better prepare the industry for the implications of GM crop production, should the technology become available in the UK.

“We recognise that GM is an emotive subject but this report is specifically focused on the science, rather than consumer acceptability of GM products.

“However, we live in a market economy and farmers and processors are reliant on consumer demand for their products. Although this study demonstrates there would be tangible benefits to farmers and the environment in certain GM crop production scenarios, ultimately the decision rests in the hands of the consumer.”

On-farm economic impacts

Researchers at the University of Reading used a dynamic economic model to predict the impact on UK farm gross margins of growing Insecticide Resistant (IR) maize and Herbicide Tolerant (HT) oilseed rape (OSR).

It found that only under continued pest and weed pressures was there an economic benefit to GM crops over conventional crops, as the technology premium for GM seed and the cost of co-existence measures depressed gross margins in the absence of these pressures.

However, in very severe pest and weed pressure situations, gross margins could increase by up to 15.2% for continuous Insecticide Resistant (IR) maize, 16.6% for continuous Herbicide Tolerant (HT) OSR and 10.2% for HT OSR in a four crop rotation.

Other benefits included a cleaner crop (following a GM crop), better soil condition and reduced weed burden returned to the land.

Environmental impacts

Analysis of environmental impacts was based on evidence from countries where GM crops are already being produced.

It found that HT and IR traits reduced the amount of active ingredients applied in crop production, though for HT the risk of herbicide resistant weeds developing should not be ignored and may diminish this benefit if not managed appropriately. The use of IR crops as a pest management tool may reduce losses to insecticides of non-target organisms, including beneficials.

Reduction in the frequency of farm machinery usage would result in less soil erosion, increased soil moisture retention, and reduced fuel use and GHG emissions.

In addition, data from Spain and Portugal show co-existence measures have been effective in preventing gene flow issues.

Impacts on the UK feed supply chain

The UK feed supply chain is already using GM products in the manufacture of livestock feed. While implementation of the infrastructure to support a segregated feed supply chain would result initially in increased costs, stakeholder consultation conducted as part of the review indicates there would be no long term or structural implications.