British American Tobacco - Leaf research

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Leaf research

Finding better ways to grow

We continue to explore ways to improve the quality of tobacco plants while minimising the environmental effects of conventional production in the field.

Through our global Leaf Science and Research, we develop new and innovative sustainable farming technologies, techniques and best practice, which are rolled out to farmers as part of comprehensive agri-support packages.

Our Leaf Science and Research was first formed in Rio de Janeiro in 1974 and focuses exclusively on new ideas and ways of doing things that can be deployed to support our tobacco growing sources worldwide. It includes state-of-the-art scientific research labs, plant breeding facilities and partnerships with highly respected academic and research institutions.

Quality seeds

Through our plant breeding programme, we are developing new tobacco seed varieties that offer greater yields and higher quality, as well as resistance to diseases. This helps to improve crop resilience, but does not involve any kind of genetic modification. Over 50% of tobacco leaf grown by our farmers is from our improved seed varieties, contributing to an increase in yields of up to 20% compared with traditional varieties.

We are also working to develop new technologies and approaches to growing tobacco plant seedlings that help cut back on manual labour and reduce environmental impacts. For example, we have adopted and expanded a ‘floating’ seedbed system based on hydroponics, which reduces water use for growing seedlings. It also enables safer and more efficient application of agrochemicals, contributing to a significant reduction in overall usage. It is now used by all our farmers in Latin America and is being introduced in our other leaf operations around the world.

Soil management

To preserve soil for future generations, we are continually working to develop and apply sustainable soil management practices. Avoiding soil loss or degradation is crucial and we have introduced best practices and technologies in all our leaf operations around the world, appropriate to the growing conditions. These include minimum tillage, a method that minimises turning or disruption of the soil; relay cropping, where two or more crops are grown in sequence; and the use of plant-based green manure.

Water management is also vital to sustainable farming, especially given that agriculture accounts for nearly 70% of freshwater withdrawals globally and up to 90% in some developing countries. While many tobacco crops are rain-fed, others, such as those in Mexico, need irrigation. It is in these situations that we try to find more sustainable ways for farmers to water their crops, while also protecting the access of local communities to water. For example, drip irrigation technology has been shown to increase water usage efficiency, as well as reducing soil erosion and salination and ultimately boosting yields.

There are several ways in which we are helping to minimise agrochemical use on crops too, such as through alternative integrated pest management and natural ‘biocontrol’ techniques. We also have standards to ensure our farmers use only approved agrochemicals with the lowest possible toxicity according to World Health Organization (WHO) classification.

Genetically modified (GM) leaf

We investigate ways that biotechnology can be used to improve tobacco quality and looks at modifications that may help our efforts to make products that are potentially less harmful.

We respect consumer concerns that have been expressed about genetic modification of crops. Our current policy is that we do not use genetically modified (GM) tobacco in any of our products and we take all reasonable precautions to avoid the purchase of any.

In the future, we believe that benefits may arise from genetic modification of tobacco leaf in terms of better quality and consistency and the reduced use of agrochemicals. We continue to carefully evaluate the potential benefits balanced against the possible consequences of GM crops on the environment.

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