GeneWatch PR: Agrofuels and the use of Genetic Modification

Embargo: 00:01 Tuesday 11th August 2009

Today GeneWatch UK published a new report exploring the use of genetic technologies for the production of agrofuels (industrial-scale biofuels). The report questions whether the substantial investment being made in a new generation of agrofuels, often being developed using genetically-modified (GM) organisms and new GM crops, will solve the problems now acknowledged with the current generation. The concerns include:

  • Over-reliance on claims that difficult technical problems will be overcome, particularly that new GM micro-organisms will be able to convert cellulose in woody plants to fuel;

  • Failure to consider the environmental impacts, including impacts on biodiversity and the creation of potentially hazardous waste streams of GM micro-organisms.

Existing agrofuels have been widely criticised because greenhouse gas savings over fossil fuels maybe low or non existent and because the diversion of land and food crops to fuel production contributed to rising food prices and consequent riots in some countries in recent years. However, the EU and the UK Government are set to continue to increase their use, assuming that a new generation of agrofuels will solve these problems, as outlined in the recent UK Renewable Energy Strategy (1) and the Carbon Reduction Strategy for Transport (2).

In January this year the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Research Council) launched its £27m Sustainable Bioenergy Centre which it says will focus on widening the range of raw materials, and altering crops to be more useful for bioenergy production including biofuels (3). GeneWatch UK's new report into the use of genetically modified organisms and new GM crops in agrofuel production includes the following policy recommendations:

1) A more realistic and independent appraisal of the potential impact of second-generation GM agrofuels is needed to inform policy decisions. This should include an assessment of the likely performance against key criteria, including: impact on climate, biodiversity, food supply and land use, and technical feasibility. It should be open about uncertainties, economic interests and how different social values (such as how people value biodiversity and impacts on food supplies in poorer countries) are likely to affect policy decisions.

2) Important gaps in research and regulation should be addressed. These include:

  • research on environmental impacts, including invasiveness, energy balance and the impact of factory-scale waste streams containing genetically modified microorganisms

  • consideration of major gaps in regulation, including regulation of waste streams containing genetically modified micro-organisms, and how the possible contamination of food crops with new traits from GM agrofuels will be addressed.

In general, more public involvement and debate is also needed to ensure that policy decisions, including research funding decisions, are not driven by a narrow range of vested interests.

Notes to editors:

1) Low Carbon Transport:  A Greener Future. A Carbon Reduction Strategy for Transport. Department for Transport  (July 2009)

2) The Renewable Energy Strategy (RES) July 2009

3) BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre

For further information contact:

Becky Price,  Mobile: 07949396328

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