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Yorkshire Post; 12th January 2010
ENGLISH farmers don't grow genetically modified (GM) crops because, we are told, the public doesn't want them. We therefore remain a GM-free island. Wrong on both counts.
True, there are no suitable crops approved for growing by the EU. But, if there were, there would be plenty of farmers willing to give them a go.
Indeed, Leeds University, which has carried out a successful trial, is to apply for a licence for a new field trial of GM potatoes.
Farms in the UK are among the most productive in the world, and hard-pressed farmers are always looking for ways to boost their yields.
All they need is a market, and increasing concerns about food security are likely to make both consumers and supermarkets more accepting of crop biotechnology.
The fact is that, after all the furore of the 1990s, GM is nowhere near
the top of most people's concerns about food. The Food Standards Agency regularly surveys consumers. Their most recent results, published in September last year, showed GM to be 17th out of 19 issues; above food miles and BSE, but well below food poisoning, levels of fat and sugar, food prices and pesticides. They were more concerned even about animal feed (24 per cent versus 21 per cent mentioning GM).
And these results are not a flash in the pan. Similar surveys both here and across the EU show a similar picture.
In the meantime, the great majority of us are eating meat, eggs and dairy products from animals fed on imported soya protein. Millions of tonnes enter Europe every year via Rotterdam and other major ports and, without it, the price of meat and milk would rise significantly. The soya comes largely from South America, where farmers have eagerly latched on to the benefits of crop biotechnology. UK farmers know they are buying GM feed, but the meat does not have to be labelled.
So, while farmers in this country have no GM seed to plant, their foreign competitors happily export their own GM crops to feed English livestock.
GM – genetic modification – has been used in commercial crops since the mid-1990s, and in 2008 was used by farmers in 25 countries to sow 125 million hectares of land: five times the total land area of the United Kingdom. The approvals process is tough, and there has been no credible evidence that currently approved varieties are any less safe than those bred conventionally.
But, from a promising beginning – some readers may remember that Sainsbury's and Safeway successfully sold GM tomato purée more than 10 years ago – consumer confidence was shattered when small amounts of Monsanto's Roundup Ready® soya began to turn up in a wide range of processed foods.
Supermarkets rushed to take GM soya out of their products, and have seen no reason to make the much harder decision to reverse their position.
What might change this? The most convincing argument is that the next generation of GM crops will offer both real consumer benefits and real consumer choice. This should be more than enough to encourage retailers to change their minds. And the very company which caused the initial problem may also have the solution.
Monsanto, hated by activists but still by far the leading company in the area, has another soya variety ready to market, this time containing high levels of healthy omega-3 oils of the sort normally found only in oily fish such as salmon.
Unlike Roundup Ready® varieties, this is not a commodity product for animal feed. Instead, it should deliver the same heart-health benefits as fish, while avoiding concerns about over-fishing or fish farming.
Other crops might also break the impasse. A start-up company from Norwich has developed a GM purple tomato, containing high levels of the same antioxidants believed to give red wine its health benefits.
Food price and security is another factor which may change consumer and retailer perceptions. The large price rises of a couple of years ago, when cereal stocks were abnormally low following a series of bad harvests, could become more common as a growing world population – set to increase by over two billion by mid-century – has to be fed from essentially the same amount of farmland.
In such a situation, the minority of consumers who are apparently concerned might become less finicky: after all, the recession has seen a steep decline in sales of organic produce as consumers opt for less expensive options.
This does not immediately overcome the problem of a long-winded and highly political EU approvals process. But if there are products which consumers want to buy, and if farmers want to provide them, then surely the country's farmers cannot be denied access to the same technology as their international competitors for ever.