2 June 2000


Lets keep the GM

debate sensible and

productive, not turn it

into a hysterical

slanging match, says

Guy Smith

Like many East Anglian farmers, we have grown high euricic oilseed rape for years. As its name suggests, it is high in euricimides which when fed to rats at unusually high doses produces lesions on their livers. So this rape is not grown for human consumption but for industrial lubricants.

To those of a hysterical predisposition, the growing of plants that are high in euricimides might seem dodgy. Many possibilities could be foreseen if you put your imagination into over-drive. The high euricic plants could get their genes into other farmed crops destined for the food chain. They might cross-pollinate with wild plants. Bees might pick up the high euricic pollen and take it back to the honeycomb. High euricic pollen may waft to contaminate the lungs of innocent children.

Such lurid scenarios are of no consequence because we know that there is no evidence of any risk from growing high euricics. It remains a nice little earner for many farmers. Contrast that with the prospect of growing GM rape, which has no known toxicity or negative environmental impact.

When it was announced that my farm was to be a GM trial site, there was a huge concern in my village and in the local media. You would have thought a UFO trial had been announced rather than a GMO trial.

In Tudor times my village, St.Osyth, was renowned for its witch-hunts. Innocent women were burned because of untrue rumours about sick children, deformed animals and blighted crops.

Now 400 years later, the village was in the grip of another witch-hunt and again there were rumours about sick children, deformed plants and blighted nature reserves. Just as many of my neighbours seemed spooked by my plans, I too was spooked by their irrational over-reaction.

The GM debate is one of the great debates of our time; but it is not really about GM technology. It goes further – it is about a growing distrust of science and unfounded fears of agriculture based on modern technology. As farmers, we stand back from this debate at our peril. New technology has been a good friend to the farmer over the past two generations. From the diesel engine to the hydraulic pump and hybrid seed, the list of gifts is endless. If we lose our confidence in new technology it could set us back decades.

"Why bother with GMOs, nobody wants them," it is asked? Although its true that the consumer is king, who informs the consumer as to what is safe?

GM crops have been taken up readily by our American competitors. On millions of acres they have been shown to be safe to people and the environment. They have reduced pesticide use and cut production costs. Yet in the UK, powerful and well financed political pressure groups have set their campaigning faces against this useful technology. They are determined British farmers will not have it, no matter what the evidence.

Our grandfathers and fathers welcomed new technology even if at first sight it had no immediate benefit for consumers. That is how they transformed agriculture from the unproductive, peasant backwardness of the 19th century into the modern, forward-thinking, productive industry of today. They climbed aboard the technology train for their benefit and for societys benefit. Today it seems the technology train has hit the buffers.

My generation of farmers has a choice. Do we give in to the eco-bigots who would prefer us as organic park-keepers or do we wake up to the importance of the GM debate? The legacy handed to us from our fathers was one of progression and competitiveness. What is to be our legacy to our children? Is it to be an agriculture that defers to the whims and prejudices of scaremongers or is it to be an agriculture that can continue to benefit from new technology and safe food?

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