The dangers of GM – Europe must learn the lessons from America
Helen Wallace
Public Service Europe, 14 May 2012

American farmers are increasingly expressing regret over the planting of GM crops, which are now causing major problems, and Europe must take note before it is too late warns campaign group

The British House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's new report on sustainable food recommends government action to tackle the United Kingdom's unhealthy and environmentally damaging food system. In addition to important recommendations to improve healthy eating and sustainability, the report highlights the need to diversify the research agenda in food and agriculture. The committee also questions the role of genetically modified crops in the future food system.

And it calls for independent research on the co-existence of GM crops with conventional and organic systems. Last week, the European Parliament adopted a welcome resolution calling for the European Patent Office to stop granting patents on the conventional breeding of plants and animals. Such patenting is technically prohibited, but patents on conventionally-bred plants – including sunflowers, melons, cucumbers, rice and wheat have nevertheless been granted by the patent office in recent years, as companies seek to exploit loopholes in the law to obtain increased monopoly control of seeds.

A series of damaging decisions about research priorities in food and farming were made in the 1980s and have become entrenched in the research funding system. This has led to the development of GM seeds, which can be patented, being prioritised over other types of research – including modern conventional breeding and improved farmland, soil and water management. The main GM crops that have been commercialised are tolerant to companies' own herbicides, or express toxins that make the plants resistant to some pests. We know that GM soya and maize are grown mainly in North and South America, with GM cotton also widely grown in India and China. Salt-tolerant and nitrogen-fixing GM crops were first promised more than 30 years ago, but have not been delivered.

The concerns about GM crops include: an increasing monopoly control over the food chain by a small number of commercial companies, due to the patenting of GM seeds; the spread of herbicide-tolerant super weeds in the United States and South America, which pose serious difficulties and costs for farmers; the emergence of pests resistant to GM pest-resistant crops and increases in other types of pests in India and China; impacts on non-GM farmers of incidents in which experimental or commercially-grown GM crops contaminate their crops and lead to lost markets at significant expense; and the high costs of segregating non-GM and GM crops, foods and seeds – which fall on conventional and organic farmers.

Currently, GM crops are not grown commercially in Britain. And the MPs' report argues that the government should not support this, or promote their use overseas, until there is clear public acceptance of GM and it is proven to be beneficial. American farmers are increasingly expressing regret over the planting of GM crops, which are now causing major problems. If farmers in Britain or other countries adopt the same system, there is a danger that they will be trapped in debt – due to seed price hikes and the emergence of resistant weeds and pests.

Loss of GM-free markets and the costs of segregation would also be costly for those farmers who do not want to plant GM. It is time the British government reviewed the whole research funding system so that money is no longer wasted on expensive, patented GM seeds, instead of research into sustainable food that farmers and the public so urgently need. Rather than increasing monopoly control over the food chain – the emphasis should be on policies which support the potential for the production and sale of more sustainable, healthy food by networks of local businesses.

Dr Helen Wallace is director of the GeneWatch UK campaign group