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Is Europe “missing out” on genetically modified crops? Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seems to think so, judging from a recent speech, which you can read on the DEFRA website:

  • “Less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation occurred in the EU. While the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies, Europe risks being left behind. We cannot afford to let that happen.”

The Secretary of State cites various benefits of GM technology – pointing out that herbicide tolerant and insect resistant GM varieties can lead to higher yields and lower chemical inputs. But do these benefits still apply in everyday use – as opposed to the carefully controlled conditions under which trials are conducted?

For instance, if we were to compare yields in GM-free western Europe with those in North America, (where GM is commonly used), would we find clear evidence for a GM advantage? Not according to a study conducted by researchers at New Zealand’s Canterbury University.

Of course, this is just one study. But evidence that GM is not delivering for growers is accumulating. For instance, according to Farmers Weekly – not exactly the house journal of the green movement – “US farmers are considering returning to conventional seed after increased pest resistance and crop failures meant GM crops saw smaller yields globally than their non-GM counterparts.”

There’s some acknowledgement of the problem in Owen Paterson’s speech, but it comes with a hefty dose of industry spin:

  • “Weed resistance is also often highlighted as an environmental problem associated with GM crops but it’s something that occurs in conventional cropping too. It’s not a GM issue, it’s a crop management issue.”

But weed and pest resistance is a GM issue. Planting crops with inbuilt insect resistance means that the insecticidal agent is present all the time, instead of being externally applied at intervals. The majority of the pest population may die as a result of eating the modified crop, but a few individuals will survive to pass on their counter-resistant genes to the next generation. It’s called evolution. 

The spread of herbicide tolerance from GM varieties to weed species is also an increasing problem. Because the leading herbicide tolerant varieties are modified to produce tolerance to a specific herbicide (often manufactured by the same company that sells the GM seed), farmers use that one chemical (sometimes to excess) instead of a wider range of treatments – giving evolution the chance to do its thing again. So, yes, this is a GM specific problem (and that’s before we get to the risk of direct ‘gene flow’ of transgenic characteristics between GM and non-GM varieties or even to other species altogether).

Given these threats it’s not surprising that the GM companies are looking towards Britain and Europe. Our soil represents a refuge for their crops – because, so far, our native pests and weeds haven’t had a chance to evolve a response. 

One wonders, however, what’s in it for us as consumers? Owen Paterson is certainly right to call for an open debate:

  • “I believe that it’s time to start a more informed discussion about the potential of genetically modified crops. A discussion that enables GM to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits.”

The trouble is that there was nothing balanced about the rest of his speech. In fact, it reads like one long industry press release – and that's no way to win people over.

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