Claims about potential benefits

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Multinational agrochemical companies, in their publicity material, annual reports and in interview comments made by senior managers, stress a number of benefits that biotechnology potentially offers. Commonly expressed views about the ways in which company strategy on biotechnology can contribute to sustainable agriculture and sustainable development are shown in Table 11.4. (Some of the companies mentioned in Table 11.4 have merged since this research was done: e.g. Novartis and Zeneca merged in 2000 to form Syngenta; Rhône-Poulenc and AgrEvo merged in 1999 to form Aventis; cf. den Hond in this volume.)

In particular, companies stress the potential for GM crops to reduce the use of insecticides and herbicides, and to allow farmers to switch to herbicides with less environmental impact. They say that in some cases GM crops will result in improved yields, for example by reducing losses due to pest damage. This will allow more food to be grown on the same area, and reduce the need to extend the area under cultivation, so enabling less intensive production or conserving habitat on the remaining land (a view corresponding with the 'market-based' concept of sustainable agriculture). Many companies point to the predicted increase in population in developing countries, arguing that the use of biotechnology will be essential if the resulting increased demand for food is to be met.

In individual interviews, company managers express more nuanced views (Tait et al. 2001). For example, some acknowledge that the benefits of the first generation of GM crops may not be widely shared. Some expect that GM crops, especially those

Table 11.4 Commonly expressed views in multinational agrochemical companies about biotechnology's contribution to sustainable agriculture and sustainable development (Tait et al. 2001).

Commonly expressed views Company

Reducing use and impacts of chemical inputs

• Reducing use and dependence on chemical plant protection products/ substituting chemicals with GM crop technology

• Making crops tolerant to environmentally sound and easily degradable herbicides/decreasing impacts of spraying toxic chemicals/ avoiding unwanted effects of non-selective pesticide treatments/ helping decrease pesticide load/reducing pesticide residues

• Developing plants that need less nitrogen and that absorb nutrients more effectively

Reconciling high yields and reduced environmental impact

• Supporting high-yield agriculture which takes less space and leaves more land for nature/using arable land more efficiently

• Increasing agricultural productivity while protecting nature/ minimising conflict between environmental concerns and modern agriculture/reconciling need for environmental sustainability and higher productivity/more sustainable high-yield agriculture/low-impact, high-output agriculture

Feeding the world

• Helping feed the world/providing food for developing countries

Contributing to integrated crop management (ICM)

• Promoting ICM as the basis of efficient and profitable production that is environmentally responsible/biotechnology can provide ICM opportunities

Encouraging responsible practice

• Being responsible/encouraging environmental responsibility/ developing guidelines for responsible use of genetic engineering/using transgenic plants 'correctly'/ encouraging good environmental practice

Protecting the land for future generations

• Protecting the sustainability of the land for future generations

Minimising resource use and waste

• Saving on materials and energy/minimising waste production/using life cycle analysis/ setting environmental targets at factory level + green accounts

Improving living standards

• Improving living standards and quality of life (through economic success and optimum use of resources)

Responding to society

• Taking an interest in the role of companies in society

• Encouraging open dialogue

• Include ethical and social issues in annual reports/achieving environmental and social, as well as financial sustainability: 'triple bottom line'

Advanta, Novartis

AgrEvo, Danisco, KWS, Novartis, Pioneer, Rhône-Poulenc


AgrEvo, Monsanto

AgrEvo, BASF, Bayer, Monsanto, Novartis

Bayer, BASF, Danisco, Monsanto, Pioneer, Rhône-Poulenc

AgrEvo, BASF, Bayer, Zeneca

AgrEvo, Bayer, Danisco, Rhône-Poulenc


BASF, Bayer, Monsanto, Danisco


Danisco BASF

Danisco, Zeneca being developed with output traits, will result in increased rather than reduced pesticide use as farmers seek to protect their investment in the costly seed. Some managers view claims about 'feeding the world' as naïve.

Several of the major biotechnology companies support integrated crop management, expressing views that correspond more closely with the 'environmental management' perspective on sustainable agriculture. They point out that GM crops will allow more precisely targeted pest control, and avoid harm to beneficial insects such as pest predators.

Some of the biotechnology companies embrace a wider view of sustainable development, beyond concerns relating specifically to agriculture. For example, they mention acting responsibly, considering future generations, minimising resource use and waste, improving living standards and responding to society's concerns and needs.

National governments such as in the US and UK, and regional institutions such as the European Commission, have strongly supported the biotechnology industry. They see it as offering employment opportunities and increasing their country's or region's competitiveness. They add the proviso that their support will not be at the expense of human health or the environment. For example, the UK's prime minister has said (Blair 2000):

Our scientists are among the world leaders in the whole area of biotechnology. It is exactly the kind of knowledge-based industry which could help provide more jobs and more prosperity in the future. But jobs and profit will never be more important for a responsible government than concern over human health and our environment.

A number of international bodies and learned societies have published statements and reports in support of biotechnology, pointing out its potential benefits. For example, the United Nations Development Programme has emphasised biotechnology's potential to reduce malnutrition and to help poor farmers on marginal land in sub-Saharan Africa. Its report has criticised Western environmentalists for campaigns that may prevent these benefits being realised (UNDP 2001).

A report from seven learned scientific societies has listed the potential benefits from GM plants as: improved human nutrition as a result of modification of the protein, starch, fat or vitamin content of plants; plants resistant to viral, fungal and bacterial diseases; improvements to the structure and development of plants (e.g. earlier or later flowering and seed production); increased tolerance to stress such as that resulting from salinity and drought; production of extra plant biomass as a sustainable source of fuel; increased flexibility in crop management; decreased dependency on chemical insecticides; decreased soil disturbance; enhanced yields; easier harvesting, and higher proportions of the crop available for trading; decreased cost of food. Like the UN report, this report concludes that 'it is critical that the benefits of GM technology become available to developing countries' (The Royal Society of London et al. 2000).

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