My Times column on GM crops:
The news that Britain could soon grow genetically modified crops commercially is a victory for common sense over irrational opportunism, and also for the environment over pollution.
Under pressure from the European Union’s health and consumer commissioner, Tonio Borg, and Britain’s environment secretary, Owen Paterson, the EU is on the brink of ceding control of the issue to national governments. That suits countries such as France and Austria, who are implacably opposed to GM crops, and Britain, which is not.
It is now clear that the opposition to GM crops has been counter-productive for the environment as well as harmful to the economy and the consumer. It has left us more reliant on pesticides than other parts of the world. For instance, potatoes currently require spraying with fungicides up to 15 times a season. Each spraying costs money, burns diesel, compacts soil and kills innocent fungal bystanders. Breeding blight-resistant potatoes the old fashioned way has proved difficult. By the time it is achieved, the blight is already immune to the resistance.
However, doing it the GM way proved straightforward for the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, and promises stronger and longer resistance, because it is possible to introduce a cassette of several resistance genes. These come from wild plants in the same genus as the potato, which disposes of one source of opposition — that it’s an unnatural cross. The new GM variety probably could have been developed years earlier if the eco-vandals had not driven much of that kind of ground-breaking research abroad.
Incidentally, the very phrase “genetic modification” is getting harder to define. It used to mean bringing genes in from other species, but what about when genes are brought in from a species in the same genus (as in the potato example)? Or, as will increasingly be the case, when existing genes within the crop species are edited rather than replaced? And why do the complex regulations about GM not apply to plants whose genes have been deliberately but randomly modified by gamma rays, as has happened to many common “non-GM” and even organic varieties?
Remember, organic bean sprouts killed 51 people in one E coli outbreak in Germany in 2011. GM food has killed nobody. There’s now simply no way to argue with a straight face, after billions of GM meals have been eaten all round the world, that the technology is a threat to our health. The reverse is actually the case.
Purple tomatoes, rich in anti-cancer agents, have been created in Norwich, but they will be grown and sold in Canada, because we in this country are still denied such health benefits thanks to green campaigners.
The need for genetic modification is ever more urgent. The EU, in thrall to the mad precautionary principle — which argues for weighing the risks but not the benefits of innovation — is gradually outlawing many effective agro-chemicals used against weeds such as black grass, insects such as aphids and fungi such as yellow rust, all of which threaten the yields of British wheat crops on a huge scale. Farmers are facing a galloping yellow-rust crisis as resistance spreads and the armoury of allowed treatments shrinks. GM rust-resistant varieties of wheat are still five years away, because that’s how long it takes to get regulatory approval.
Elsewhere in the world, where GM crops can be grown that are resistant to pests, the butterflies, bees and birds are back in the fields in bigger numbers. When the pest resistance is inside the plant, only pests encounter it. (Incidentally, the same applies to neonicotinoid insecticides, the banning of which, after a year of increasing bee numbers, makes no sense: the alternatives are the more damaging, externally applied pyrethroids.)
So this is a technology that is safe for human health, better for the environment, more effective than the alternative and economically beneficial to consumers and farmers. Let the French ban it if they want to.
The opposition to GM crops was never really much about safety or environmental protection. It was always chiefly motivated by dislike of corporate “control” of seeds, a bogeyman that suited the environmental movement as a rallying cry with which to raise funds. It was a meaningless slogan, since companies also supply non-GM seeds, not to mention tractors and wellington boots. But the beauty of the campaign, as far as the likes of Greenpeace was concerned, was that it led directly to heavy-handed and expensive compliance regimes, that meant that only large corporations could afford to apply for approval for GM crops, which then appeared to prove the point. Rarely has an argument been more circular.
Incidentally, any doubt that money is the principal concern of Greenpeace evaporated this month with the news that a rogue trader in its currency trading division had lost $5.2 million betting against the euro. Good grief! This, remember, is the organisation that has done the most to block GM crops — including a disgraceful campaign against the non-profit, humanitarian project in support of vitamin-A-rich “golden” rice. This rice could prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children each year from vitamin-A deficiency diseases. And it’s gambling with charitable donations! It makes Goldman Sachs look like the Angel Gabriel.
In America, the GM debate might superficially appear to be slipping slightly backwards. Two counties in Oregon have just banned GM crops, requiring all trace of them to be removed within a year. Once again, the reason turns out to be money. Those with an ear close to the ground say the big green philanthropic bodies in the USA are showing “donor fatigue” on the issue of climate change. Quick as ever to pick up on such signs, “Big Green” has begun changing its message to push other buttons in its search for more funds. The perennial concern of right-on people that “they are doing things to our food” is one of those buttons.
In short, the new campaign is based on no new science suggesting environmental or health risks. It’s simply a sign of a movement addicted to scaremongering and in need of new funds. Fortunately it will not gain much traction. With 17 million farmers growing GM crops in 28 countries, on 12 per cent of the world’s arable land, this gene genie won’t go back in the bottle.