Anti-GM Brigade Will Turn Feast Into Famine
News Nov 24, 2009
- Liam Clarke, The Sunday Times, Nov. 22, 2009
GM-Free Ireland, a new group calling for genetically modified crops to be banned throughout the island, is entitled to its point of view. What it is not entitled to do is start a health scare and bamboozle the public with buzz words such as "sustainability" and "natural".
Malcolm Thompson, president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, who is quoted by the lobby group, has added another dimension to the campaign. He says farmers will be quick to switch to GM-free products when they see them demanding a premium price. In other words, GM-Free Ireland can also be seen as a campaign for dearer food.
Darina Allen, the celebrity chef and owner of a cookery school, believes that "supporting the GM-free policy provides a way for every farmer, food producer and consumer to help create a sustainable future for us all". So it could be argued that much of the impetus for this campaign is about the bottom line.
Genetically modified foods have been around since about 1996 and there have been no proven adverse effects on human health. In America, 89% of soybeans, 60% of corn and 83% of cotton (whose oil we consume) are grown from GM stock. There have been no problems. On rare occasions when adverse effects were detected during animal testing, products were withdrawn. When a nut gene added to soy beans was suspected to be a possible trigger for nut allergy, production halted.
Compare that with the health record from "natural" food. BSE was given to us by farmers feeding cows the brains of other animals in preference to soya beans, which would have been more expensive. Foot and mouth was spread by the greed of a minority of farmers evading regulation. Our diet is unhealthy. Yet the governments north and south spend money promoting the consumption of more red meat and animal fat which, unlike GM foods, have proven health costs in the quantities in which they are consumed.
Ireland, under the combined influence of the Greens and the farming lobby, has a disgraceful record of blocking cheaper animal feed by abstaining in key votes on the authorisation of GM products, but later seeking export refunds for animal products because of increased feed costs.
The European commission estimates that the price of non-GM soybeans will rise by up to 600% in the next two years. That would drive food prices in a GM-free Ireland through the roof. In the UK, 54 genetically modified crops have been approved. Nearly all dairy, pork and red meat products, as well as many frozen and processed meat and dairy products, are produced from animals fed on GM crops, according to the Soil Association, which represents organic farmers. Even vegetarian rennet in cheese is a GM product. Opinion polls show that Europeans prefer non-GM food in principle, but Ireland's farming and GM-free lobby need to consider just how much of a premium people will pay if there is no benefit in taste or quality. The growth of cross-border shopping shows that price often trumps patriotism. The reasons we should embrace GM crops are simple: they are higher yield and easier to grow. Our present method of food production and consumption cannot be sustainable without a big reduction in population, perhaps through famine, a drop in meat consumption or both.
The world's population, estimated at 200m in 1AD, reached one billion in 1804. That was when Thomas Malthus, the political economist, wrote that "the power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race". His thinking shaped the laissez-faire attitude to the potato famine in Ireland.
Luckily there turned out to be a technical fix in the shape of the agricultural revolution, but if we had stuck to traditional methods we would have starved. The population rose to two billion in 1927 and topped three billion in 1959, around the time that the green revolution introduced high-yielding cultivars, chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation and large-scale farming. There will be nine billion of us by 2050 and food demand will have increased by anything from 56% to 120% compared with 2000. At the same time, food producers will be contending with increasing climate instability as well as loss of arable land by salinisation and erosion. Only about 18% of the planet's surface is arable land and, unless we can bring more into production, that percentage will be further reduced by housing and transport demands.
Feeding the world is a constant race for improved methods, and standing still isn't an option. That's why the scare stories and pseudo science pedalled by the anti GM-lobby need to be taken head on. The crankiest of them all is probably Prince Charles, who last year warned of "millions of small farmers all over the world being driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness". That is what is referred to as the "frigging Monsanto" argument after the corporation that takes the lead in GM crops. It produced herbicides to kill weeds and then genetically engineered seeds that could survive the herbicide. Some seeds have a "terminator gene" which makes them infertile in the second generation, forcing people to go back to Monsanto if they want more.
This is more a criticism of the tendency of capital to seek to expand and establish monopolies than of GM per se. The answer, as in other industries, is regulation and competition. As with drug companies, a limit could also be put on the length of time that a product can remain exclusive to its developer, with special dispensations for the Third World.
In some ways, though, Monsanto can't win. When it leaves out the terminator gene, as it frequently does, the accusation is that its product will cross-pollinate with other crops, producing so-called Frankenstein foods.
When it marketed crops that would not need spraying for pests because they produce BT, a toxin fatal to insects but harmless to humans, that too was criticised. When it was pointed out that BT was used by organic farmers, the next scare was that, if it was used widely, insects might develop resistance and then organic products would be eaten alive.
Those arguing against GM foods are full of superstitious what-ifs, but those are bridges that will have to be crossed if we come to them. It's a level of caution that we apply to few other human endeavours. It is not as if we have never tampered with nature. Highyield dairy cows would never have evolved in nature. They were selectively bred from wild ancestors and would die outside the unnatural environment of dairy farms. Yet nobody calls them Frankenstein buffalos.
All of our more than 200 varieties of dog were bred from wolves, yet who would argue that greyhounds or french poodles should be banned as unnatural abominations? It happens in food, too, where few of our staples would flourish in nature.
Compared with the genetic manipulation involved in selective breeding, not to mention techniques such as grafting and crosspollination in plants, genetic engineering is technically difficult, but not all that complicated.
All plants have a common ancestor and a fairly similar genome. Gene splicing between modern species may be innovative but the result is generally to get cells to produce, or fail to produce, a single protein. It has been compared with turning a single bolt in a car. It could conceivably cause a problem but it's possible to anticipate and test for that.
If, as argued, it is such a good idea to go GM-free because we are an island, why, one wonders, doesn't Australia declare itself the GM-free continent? Instead it has been licensing GM crops since 2000 without any apparent ill effects. Stormont should do everyone on this island a favour by blocking this screwy cross-border initiative. 'FEEDING THE WORLD MEANS A CONSTANT RACE TO DISCOVER IMPROVED METHODS'
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