The Trouble with GM

The Trouble with GM

Author, researcher, blogger and academic, Dr Oliver Moore, considers the GM debate as Teagasc announces plans to trial GM potatoes in Ireland

Fruit In recent decades, it has become possible to significantly alter the genetic make up of crops. While there has always been slow, selective breeding regimes involving changes in plants, more recently, it has become possible to horizontally transfer genes – that’s transfer genes across the species barrier.

Many people worry about the long term implications of doing this genetic modification (GM): worries have been expressed that horizontal transfer of genes may have unknown, unintended consequences that may cause future problems for food production and for nature more generally.

Europe rejects GM

In fact, European citizens have, it seems, rejected the use of this technology in food production. “There is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe – [by] the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians.” That’s according to someone with a vested interest in saying the exact opposite: the head of the plant science division of an agri-food giant BASF. Stefan Marcinowski made this rather candid statement while announcing that BASF were moving their entire plant science wing out of Europe because of this “lack of acceptance.”

GM ProtestsThe lack of consumer acceptance is fairly clear. According to a special EU Commission (Euboromoter) report from October 2010, “The key findings of this survey are that Europeans…: do not see benefits of genetically modified food, consider genetically modified foods to be probably unsafe or even harmful and are not in favour of development of genetically modified food”.

Another agri-food company, Monsanto, have also retracted their GM operations in France, where they announced that they would not sell the GM crop they developed there. In any case, they would have found it difficult to, again because of the lack of farmer, politician and consumer acceptance.

In terms of GM crop cultivation, Europe differs from many other parts of the world, most notably the Americas, North and South, and also the ‘far east’ (south east Asia and China). These are the regions where most GM crops are grown globally. Within Europe, only two crops (maize/wheat MON 810, and the potato Amflora) have been approved to be grown. The latter was approved in 2010, the former 12 years previously.

GM MaizeHardly any Amflora potatoes have been grown since approval: in 2010, 118 hectares were grown, and in 2011 just 18 hectares hectares were. Of this, 16 hectares were grown in Sweden and 2 in Germany. Indeed, an error by BASF in their trials in Sweden, whereby an illegal, or unapproved (Amadea) and legal/approved (Amflora) GM potato crop cross-contaminated each other meant that the 16 hectares were destroyed. The Maize/wheat, MON810, has been more popular as a crop in Europe: just over 114,000 hectares were grown in 2011. The majority of this was in Spain – over 97,000 hectares, with far smaller amounts grown in 5 other European countries. However this is about 0.1% of the arable land of Europe, which totals about 110,000 million hectares. In fact globally, 90% of arable land is not under GM cultivation. The size of this is important to take into account for a couple of reasons. GM proponents often paint a picture of the inevitability of GM, of the fact that it is everywhere and unstoppable – a bell that has already been rang as it were.

Irish authorities consider GM

On the other hand, in both Ireland and the UK, non commercial GM trials are either beginning (UK, wheat) or proposed (potatoes, Ireland). Non commercial, in this context, means not run by or for specific companies. In the Irish situation, the Department of Agriculture’s research wing, Teagasc, have made the application.

Very few European countries grow GM crops: just nine in total grew any last year: 7 grew maize/wheat and 2 potatoes. This move by Teagasc, were it to be successful, would mean Ireland would lose its ‘GM-Virginity’: GM crops have never been grown successfully outdoors in Ireland. Campaigners opposed to the use of GM in food have expressed concerns over the risk of outdoor trials, as it involves “releasing a plant (by its very nature capable of reproducing itself and therefore ‘uncontrollable’ in nature) into a field.”

Teagasc, for their part, cite the need to develop late season blight resistance in potatoes and the “fact of life in the crop sector that there is increasing resistance to conventional fungicides”, whereas the organic sector and others have pointed to the recent development of potato varieties that are already resistant to blight, and to the threat to Ireland’s clean green farming and food image the development of GM foods could present. A decision will be made by the on the Teagasc application by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in May.

Organic food rules do not allow GM

Surprisingly, a higher percentage of European land is under organic cultivation than under GM crop cultivation: 4% vs 0.1% respectively.

If you buy organic food, you buy into a system that disallows GM as a core ingredient or even as a feed component. Irish conventional meat and milk – that’s the standard meat and milk available in the shops – is exceptionally grass fed, when compared to what’s produced in most other countries. Winter feed for livestock in Ireland usually has some GM crops in it. So GM crops, such as soya, are part of the feed livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs chickens) consumes in Ireland – unless the livestock is certified organic.

Is GM damaging the environment, food production and human health?

Is there enough evidence about GM crops to say whether they are damaging to the environment? According to a recent FAO report: “The scienti%uFB01c evidence concerning the environmental and health impacts of GMOs is still emerging, but so far there is no conclusive information on the de%uFB01nitive negative impacts of GMOs on health or the environment”. Reports also link GM to increases in yield and various other increased efficiencies in production (e.g. Nath 2008 in the journal Nature 458: 40).

And yet, Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for the UN since 2008, favours a moratorium, or freeze, on trials of GM crops, as well as broader more socio-economically appropriate policies to alleviate poverty, such as the refocusing of public agricultural expenditure towards the poor.

“GM maize can fly to native maize areas and…contamination is difficult to avoid. It might or might not lead to the gradual disappearance of native varieties” he said in reference to GM crop growing in Mexico. De Schutter, like many others, is concerned about the functioning of GM in combination with already existing problems with poverty, social exclusion, corporate power and weak regulations.

GM Soya and sustainability

SoyaThe aforementioned Soya presents an interesting case. Uptake of GM Soya has been far stronger globally than for most other crops: 65.8% of global Soya crops were GM in 2008. A 2010 report on GM Soya, authored by 9 senior scientists, including experts in biosciences, molecular embryology and ecology, concluded that “The weight of evidence from scientific studies, documented reports, and on-farm monitoring shows that both GM RR (Roundup Ready) soy and the glyphosate herbicide it is engineered to tolerate are destructive to agricultural systems, farm communities, ecosystems, and animal and human health. The conclusion is that GM RR soy cannot be termed sustainable or responsible.”

The prevalence of GM Soya has led, the report’s authors claim, to: the emergence of superweeds; increased herbicide use; land abandonment; lower yields; higher costs; reduced nutrient uptake; increased pests and diseases and increased use of fossil fuels in the production of such Soy crops. (Superweeds emerge when the resistance genetically added to a crop moves over to the weed). GM Soya is a part of much animal feed, even in Ireland: If you want to avoid buying into the production of GM Soya, choosing organic food is a sensible option.

As a society, we end up asking ourselves about priorities: do we forge ahead with possible magic bullet solutions like GM, or do we engage in the hard slog of fundamentally changing and improving the production, distribution and consumption of food? And if the magic bullets don’t work, or have unintended side-effects, where will the collateral damage be?


About Old Boy

Love the past and the future but live in the present

Posted on May 20, 2013, in activism, Big Pharma, buisiness, Crime, environment, Food, Health, International affairs, Ireland, politics, Protest, SCIENCE, UK, USA, Wealth and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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