Opposition to GMs is irresponsible

This week in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, CropLife International hosted an online discussion on how barriers to agricultural innovation threaten global food security.

Top people in agri-politics and agri-science from the USA and around the world took part. I could not join in because of other commitments but the pre-publicity included the following from the president of CropLife International, Howard Minigh.

“Recently, many non-agricultural organisations have dismissed the benefits that science-based agricultural innovations can offer farmers and consumers. This resistance to technology, coupled with emotion-based policy making, is restricting farmer choice and could increase starvation among our world’s growing population.”

A few days ago I attended a debate at the John Innes Centre near Norwich. This venue has this year hosted the only GM crop trial in the UK – on blight resistance in potatoes. The motion for debate was “Farmers should have the choice to grow and consumers the choice to eat GM foods”.

About 170 people turned up, among them several farmers. But the majority were consumers. There were only a few GM antis and they were well behaved.

Before the debate, Anna Hill of Radio 4’s Farming Today, who acted as chairman, asked the audience whether they agreed with the motion. It appeared to me that well over 80% put up their hands. The rest were divided between those who disagreed and those who hadn’t made up their minds.

I’ve attended previous debates on the subject at which there was greater hostility to GM and I concluded the slight relaxation of the British government and the EU on the issue in recent years, or proximity to the GM trial, was reflected in that audience.

Be that as it may, the debate did little to change minds. Most of the speakers were understated in their advocacy for or against the motion and I was disappointed. At least until Dr Eric Ward, who seconded the proposition, gave his presentation. He was an American who has worked with various bio-tech companies, now taking a sabbatical at the Sainsbury Laboratories at the UEA. He set out to refute some common fallacies about GM.

But he began by saying he thought it odd that we should even be debating such an issue, given that GM crops are grown and consumed without problems in more than 20 countries around the world.

The first fallacy was that the safety of GM crops had been insufficiently evaluated. There have, he said, been more than 130 research projects over 25 years involving over 500 independent groups that have concluded GMOs are no more risky than conventional plant breeding.

Second – that GM crops damage the environment. A similar intensity of researchers has found that, if anything, the domesticated characteristics of GM plants decrease potential hazards.

Third – that GMs, uniquely, lead to unanticipated changes in genetic make-up. He quoted examples of spontaneous mutation in wild plants. It happens all the time in nature, he said. With GMs, it happens less and is easier to identify and control.

Fourth – GM crops are subject to onerous patent protection. But so are all new crop varieties and we pay royalties to those who bred them.

Fifth – that by blocking GM crops we harm the multinationals selling them. Maybe – but the cost is so high that only multinationals can afford to develop them.

I thought Dr Ward made sense. And considered alongside of the issues discussed in Des Moines this week, I suggest those who stand in the way of innovative agriculture are irresponsible in the extreme.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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