29 May 1998

GM crops greener than organic ones, says chem maker

By Jonathan Riley

AGROCHEMICAL company Monsanto has mounted a robust defence of its involvement with genetically modified crops claiming that its vision of the future is more environmentally friendly than organic farming.

Speaking at a Monsanto conference in London, Carlos Joly, director of sustainability, said that "slash and burn" agriculture, which had led to the destruction of rainforests and soil erosion, was a direct result of the need for more grain on world markets. And while GM crops could boost yields, organic farming would lead to a 35% to 44% drop in wheat yields.

"If organic methods were widely adopted here in the UK you would have to import an extra 5m tonnes of wheat a year or expand your wheat growing area on to non-wheat growing land. Organic farming is like all good things – when it is taken to extremes it becomes a poison," said Mr Joly.

He said GM crops – which had taken off faster than any computer technology and now accounted for 50% of all soyabeans planted in the US – had huge potential to increase yields and cut pesticide inputs.

"What we need to do is educate the public about the possible applications and the value of new techniques," said Mr Joly.

But Colin Spedding, chairman of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, warned that education should not be confused with brainwashing. He argued that if producers had known they were feeding bovine meat and bonemeal to cattle in the eighties there would undoubtedly have been voices of concern.

"Similarly we are now hearing concern about GM crops. We must listen carefully to this concern," he said.

But NFU president, Ben Gill, said the current concern was largely perceptual. "Science has not been properly represented over the last two years and we need to establish a dialogue between consumers, producers and biotechnologists that will expose the stupidity of some arguments and the reality of others," he said.

Meanwhile, environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth staged a protest outside the London conference. Its food and biotechnology campaigns director, Peter Riley, said GM crop use was moving ahead of research into the actual impact of the crops on insect life and called for a moratorium.

"We do not need GM crops that help to reduce pesticides when farmers are already reducing pesticides by better targeting of chemical use," said Mr Riley.