"The broader driving force behind the excessive regulation of GM crops is the cult of 'back to nature' which has inspired the propaganda against agricultural biotechnology as a whole"

Prospect Magazine
The real GM food scandal

The public in Britain and Europe seems unaware of the astonishing success of GM crops in the rest of the world. No new agricultural technology in recent times has spread faster and more widely. Only a decade after their commercial introduction, GM crops are now cultivated in 22 countries on over 100m hectares (an area more than four times the size of Britain) by over 10m farmers, of whom 9m are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, mainly India and China. Most of these small-scale farmers grow pest-resistant GM cotton. In India alone, production tripled last year to over 3.6m hectares. This cotton benefits farmers because it reduces the need for insecticides, thereby increasing their income and also improving their health. It is true that the promised development of staple GM food crops for the developing world has been delayed, but this is not because of technical flaws. It is principally because GM crops, unlike conventional crops, must overcome costly, time-consuming and unnecessary regulatory obstacles before they can be licensed.

The alleged risk to health from GM crops is still the main reason for public disquiet—something nurtured by statements by environmental NGOs, who in 2002 even persuaded the Zambian government to reject food aid from the US at a time of famine because some of it was derived from GM crops. This allegation of harm has been so soundly and frequently refuted that when it is repeated, the temptation is to despair. But unless the charge is confronted, contradicted and disproved whenever it is made, its credibility will persist. The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world's leading experts—the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue—has confirmed this. Independent inquiries have found that the risk from GM crops is no greater than that from conventionally grown crops that do not have to undergo such testing. In 2001, the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself—not by private industry—conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or to the environment. [...]

Some opponents of GM crops, who seem to have realised that the argument based on lack of safety has no basis, now focus their opposition on environmental concerns, arguing that GM crops destroy biodiversity. It would be wrong to claim that the planting of GM crops could never have adverse environmental effects. But their impact depends on circumstances, on the particular crop and environment in which it is grown. Such effects occur with all sorts of agriculture. Worldwide experience of GM crops to date provides strong evidence that they actually benefit the environment. They reduce reliance on agrochemical sprays, save energy, use less fossil fuels in their production and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. And by improving yields, they make better use of scarce agricultural land.

These findings were reported by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot of PG Economics in a careful study of the global effects of GM crops in their first ten years of commercial use, from 1996 to 2005. They concluded that the "environmental impact" of pesticide and herbicide use in GM-growing countries had been reduced by 15 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. Energy-intensive cultivation is being replaced by no-till or low-till agriculture. More than a third of the soya bean crop grown in the US is now grown in unploughed fields. Apart from using less energy, avoiding the plough has many environmental advantages. It improves soil quality, causes less disturbance to life within it and diminishes the emission of methane and other greenhouse gases. The study concluded that "the carbon savings from reduced fuel use and soil carbon sequestration in 2005 were equal to removing 4m cars from the road (equal to 17 per cent of all registered cars in the UK)."

One other effect of GM crops may be the most significant of all. In the next half century, the world will have to more than double its food production to feed the over 800m people who now go hungry, the extra 3bn expected by 2050 and the hundreds of millions of people who will, as living standards rise, acquire a more western lifestyle and eat a great deal more meat. At the same time, the world is running out of good farming land and water resources. Shortage of land already causes subsistence farmers in Indonesia and South America to slash and burn tropical forests. More droughts and desertification caused by global warming will make matters worse. So will the manufacture of biofuels from wheat, corn and other food crops that further diminishes the supply of land for growing food and thus pushes up prices. Improved yields from GM technology lead to better use of land and prevent the destruction of forests with its effect on global warming. By contrast, the environmentalist James Lovelock has estimated that if all farming became organic, we would only be able to feed one third of even the present world population.

Given the evidence about the safety of GM crops and their beneficial environmental impact, and given the global success of GM cotton, maize and soya, why have so few staple GM food crops been licensed for commercial growth? Why are the benefits of golden rice, drought or salt-resistant crops, plant-based vaccines and other GM products with special promise for the developing world so long delayed?

The broader driving force behind the excessive regulation of GM crops, however, is the cult of "back to nature," which has also inspired the propaganda against agricultural biotechnology as a whole. This cult has many manifestations. One is the popularity of organic farming, which is based on the manifestly false principle that artificial chemicals are bad and natural chemicals good. Another is the rising fashion for alternative, non-evidence based medicine. The dogmatic opponents of GM crops in Europe believe that interference with the genetic make-up of plants is essentially a moral issue. It is to be condemned as part of mankind's sinful attempt to control nature, which contributes to global warming, to epidemics of cancer and all the blights of modern life. [...]

There can be little doubt that GM crops will be accepted worldwide in time, even in Europe. But in delaying cultivation, the anti-GM lobbies have exacted a heavy price. Their opposition has undermined agrobusiness in Europe and has driven abroad much research into plant biotechnology—an area in which Britain formerly excelled. Over-regulation may well cause the costs of the technology to remain higher than they need be. Above all, delay has caused the needless loss of millions of lives in the developing world. These lobbies and their friends in the organic movement have much to answer for.