Our GM policy is starving Africa

Genetic modification sells newspapers. In recent months, five UK tabloids and broadsheets have led with a front page article on GM.

The most recent, in The Daily Telegraph, informed the reader that leading figures within the government supported a move to make biotech crops more accessible to UK farmers.

Fifteen years ago, Tony Blair’s government took a similar pro-GM stance, which was retracted due to widespread anti-GM sentiment. A sentiment fuelled by NGO campaigns and tabloid newspapers.

Since then, the debate has moved on. It has become less about the safety surrounding the technology and more about anti-capitalism and whether the technology offers sufficient benefit to the consumer. So how do we prevent the government’s “support” from being stifled by yet another campaign in The Daily Mail and beyond?

Some scientists believe that the country would benefit from a public debate on genetic modification. Of this I am unsure. What I am sure of is the need for people to be educated on the benefits of GM and the unintended consequence of Europe’s current position on GM crops.

The public should understand how the anti-GM lobby have contributed to the biotech crop market being dominated by a small number of global companies. And consumers need to understand the benefits that the technology can deliver both to themselves and the environment at large.

In an attempt to prevent GM crops from being grown in Europe, the anti lobby has propagated one of its greatest fears – the market is dominated by a handful of companies. By trying to delay the uptake of biotech crops, lobbying has added layer upon layer of regulation to ensure each trait is tested time and again. This has made the process of getting an “event” approved prohibitively expensive to anyone but a handful of multinationals. To date, only 51 events are approved in the EU for purchase or use because of this cost.

The second unintended consequence is much more damaging. Europe’s restriction on imports of biotech crops has enormous impact on those outside of the EU and no one is more affected than those in sub-Saharan Africa. The EU is a market for much African produce and these restrictions are preventing many African farmers from growing GM crops. GM crops that could improve yields dramatically, or are more drought tolerant, or resistant to local pests, are being overlooked.

Bluntly, children in Africa are starving because their farmers are frightened to grow GM crops for fear that they will be unable to sell their produce.

It is right that we in Europe decide what crops are grown in our own countries. But is it right that the same continent that wastes in excess of 19m tonnes of food every year has import restrictions that mean people in Africa are going hungry because their farmers cannot benefit from GM technology?

If farmers are to feed a population of nine billion it is not going to be achieved by the farmers of the developed world. It will be as a result of doubling or tripling of yields in countries in Africa and Asia.

The EU’s current position on GM is contributing to the one billion that are starving and the two billion that suffer from micronutrient malnutrition. It is not for Europeans to decide the fate of those in Africa.

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of organic arable. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.

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