Friday, 10 August 2012

Time to accept that GM crops have their place

by Martin Pollard
Chief Executive, WCIA

Of all the articles of faith drawn up by environmentalists – many of which I share – it is surely their passionate opposition to genetically modified food that has achieved the most success in recent times.

That is the case in the European Union, anyway, where regulations on labelling, traceability and control are tighter than anywhere else in the world. Approvals for new GM products are rare, with a lack of support among member states meaning that “MON 810” maize is the only GM food cultivated commercially in the EU. GM food remains verboten under organic farming standards. Wherever scientists dare to conduct trials of new modified crops –however well controlled – the activists gather.

I am under no illusion that producing GM foods is completely safe, easy or free of negative consequences. Clearly, tight regulation is needed – as in any developing scientific field – to ensure that research is not open to over-eagerness or, worse, damaging exploitation by commercial concerns. But it is the inflexibility of many environmentalists’ approach that worries me. The clear overtone of “No GM, no matter what” is anti-scientific and anti-progressive. Instead, I am arguing that our attitude towards GM should be a cautious “yes”: yes to honest, hard-working science; yes to GM making its contribution to food security and climate change adaptation; and, of course, yes to all of the controls and regulations that are needed to make this process rigorous and effective. (The recent ban on GM trials in India reminds us of the importance of a tight regulatory system.)

It is not as if we Europeans can easily shield ourselves from GM products in any case. Meat-eaters, take note: it is estimated that 85% of the animal feed used in Europe contains unlabelled GM material. In a globalised food chain, only the most self-sufficient eaters will ever know exactly what they are eating.

But I also find it hard to understand why we are so insistent on shielding ourselves in the first place. The United States, India, China and others plant GM crops as a matter of course. One recent Chinese study showed that GM cotton crops benefit the environment, with reduced use of pesticides leading to a recovery in biodiversity in fields. And the use of GM technology in this way now appears to be supported by the British public, undermining the regularly claimed obstacle that “no-one wants GM here”.

In other areas of the world, particularly in drought-affected developing economies, GM may provide an important part of the solution to food insecurity. This is not to say that it is the only answer, or the most important one. But as the Kenyan Harvard professor Calestous Juma points out, we need all the solutions we can lay our hands on: “It doesn’t make sense to reduce the size of the toolbox when the challenges are expanding.” Another Kenyan, Felix M’mboyi, notes that European criticism of GM comes “with the luxury of a full stomach”.

Oxfam draws our attention to a number of key challenges in global food security, including the trade system, women’s participation, climate change and sustainable agriculture. GM food is not the solution to many of these issues, but it is one potential solution to some of them. At present, there is little opportunity to access GM crops for the small-scale farmers whose livelihoods are most threatened by the current challenges. Managed carefully by the international community, and with effective controls on markets, this could change.

Campaigners cite the ‘precautionary principle’ when fighting GM science, claiming that researchers should prove that GM crops are not harmful before they are allowed to proceed. But what happens when that principle comes up against the hard reality that our food resources are under greater demographic, economic and environmental pressure than ever before? When do we accept that while there might be some negative consequences of this technology – no matter how hard we strive to forestall them – the positive consequences might be greater?

There have certainly been failures, both scientific and ethical, in the GM trials and commercial arrangements conducted so far. But the history of scientific endeavour shows us that it is sensible to try harder to make things work, rather than to stop trying altogether.