Government's stance on GM crops is wrong-headed
News Nov 23, 2009
From Shane H Morris
I would like to bring to your attention an area what makes a mockery of Ireland's so-called "knowledge economy". Innovation and knowledge are words that are repeated often in the new programme for government.
However, in practice, it is clear the government has turned its back on the scientific search for knowledge by ruling out research trials on GM crops. This Luddite stance effectively throws the baby out with the bath water by refusing to even research the issue. This commitment goes against EU law, contradicts advice from the Irish chief science advisor, short changes Irish farmers and is a sad attempt to mislead the Irish public.
The ludicrous nature of this proposal is reflected in several facts. Firstly, EU regulations govern research trials of GM crops so it is not currently legally possible for the Irish government to ban such research. This was highlighted by Fianna Fáil's Noel Dempsey when, as environment minister, he accepted as government policy an independent public consultation report which ruled out a ban on crop trials in Ireland stating that it would not be legally possible to ban them. The report also warned that, if Ireland rejects or ignores GM biotechnology, it will not remain attractive to investors in high-tech industries or competitive in food production.
Secondly, the current government has only recently drafted specific wording on research trials of GM crops in their Environment Liability Act which will regulate GM crops cultivated in Ireland under EU law. Such a move seems strange if they believe a programme for government can ban such research.
Thirdly, banning GM crop research trials would contradict the government's own Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2006 to 2013) which identified the importance of building a capability in agri-biotechnology in order to assess, harness and adopt new technological innovations.
This goal will be impossible if GM crop research trials are banned.
In addition, it should be noted that the IFA, in their "Meeting Challenges" policy submission to government, stated: "Provided that the use and release of GMOs meet all the detailed regulatory requirements, IFA's assessment of GM technology is that, like science and technology generally, it can have many positive implications for agriculture and food production." This perspective was supported by professor Patrick Cunningham, Ireland's chief science advisor, who recently issued a report to the current government on GM foods. The report looked at safety, benefits and risks, and highlighted that GM technology was of value to Ireland. Public research into GM crop development is seen to be of growing importance for many countries, including our EU partners. On the global stage GM crop research is seen as a key technology platform. Cuba, the ultimate public sector state, has had 59 GM field trials. China has just committed to investing the equivalent of $3,500m of new public funds into GM crop research.
The new programme for government's shortsighted, scientifically unsupported GM policy, developed without any scientific, stakeholder or public consultation, now excludes the basic research and development tool of GM crop field trials. This puts Ireland at the back of the class in terms of EU research as scientific GM research trials in the EU now number over 2,400 and have reported no negative impacts on health or the environment. France, the bastion of good food, has sanctioned over 587 GM crop trials.
Fianna Fáil, who previously allowed research trials of GM crops in Ireland, have conceded to the à la carte scientific illiteracy of the Greens. Like most irrational positions it is one of contradiction. While Irish publicly funded GM technology to prevent potato blight sits on a lab shelf, the current government is happy to let over 250,000 pounds of toxic fungicide be used annually on Irish potatoes against blight. Greens in government elsewhere in Europe have allowed GM crop research trials. So while the programme for government proclaims "Ireland will be a test-bed for emerging technologies", when it comes to agri-food innovation, the government is happy to hide under the bed. It makes a joke of Ireland's claim to be a leading science location.
Shane H Morris,
Deparment of Biochemistry,
University College Cork
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