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opinion

The EU and GM: what’s next after the vote?

Peter Melchett on new rules allowing countries to choose to grow GM

Peter Melchett on new rules allowing countries to choose to grow GM

A recent vote by MEPs has sown the seeds for the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in the EU. Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett explains what it means for the future of GM, and the alternatives, in the UK.

Back in January, the European Parliament made a decision which set the scene for EU member states to ban genetically modified crops on social or environmental grounds, yet fails to protect GM-free farming, which will be left to decisions made by national governments. Wales and Scotland have welcomed the opportunity to confirm their non-GM position, but the vote could allow a future English government to encourage the commercial growing of GM in England. That is a few years away at least, and depends on it being worthwhile for GM companies to develop crops suitable for England when most of Europe is expected to remain GM-free.

“TherPeter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Associatione is no sign of any supermarket or food company suggesting they would be remotely interested in buying GM food crops grown in England, and there are certainly no customers queuing outside English supermarkets demanding GM food.”

Peter Melchett, policy director, Soil Association

Divided kingdom?

The governments in Scotland and Wales have reiterated their strongly anti-GM stance, and both are likely to join the majority of EU Member States in taking the opportunity under the new legislation formally to confirm their non-GMO status. If England continues to have a pro-GM government after the election, that government would need to agree to arrangements which would aim to avoid contamination of non-GM crops and food, which may take some time.

Currently, the most likely scenario in England, given a pro-GM government here, would be that a few farmers would eventually grow GM crops of maize for silage or use in anaerobic digestion, or oilseed rape for animal feed or industrial use. In this case no new GM food would enter the food chain. There is no sign of any supermarket or food company suggesting they would be remotely interested in buying GM food crops grown in England, and there are certainly no customers queuing outside English supermarkets demanding GM food. In any event, given that we remain the United Kingdom, supermarkets and food businesses would not want to have to develop separate supply chains for Scotland and Wales which are GM free.

“American farmers are reported to be returning to non-GM seeds, because of the well documented problems of resistant insects and super weeds, the high cost of GM seeds, lower yields of GM crops, and the higher prices available for non-GM crops.”

Peter Melchett, policy director, Soil Association

Global perspective

Meanwhile, though, the rest of the world is moving on. These latest moves in the EU take place against a background of some significant changes in attitude to GM around the world. There are strong moves to eliminate GM animal feed in Germany, Austria, and by major French retailer Carrefour; given this trend in Europe away from GM animal feed, it seems at least possible that UK producers will have to drop GM animal feed in response to growing pressure from the public. There is no doubt that far more countries are deciding to ban GM, either completely (Peru joined the growing list earlier this year) or at least to ban growing GM food crops (apart from many European countries, notable additions to this list last year were Russia and China). In India, where it looked for a while as if all cotton would go GM, there has been a significant fight back in some states and to some extent from the federal government, at least to ensure that organic cotton production can continue.

“In the medium-term, continued growth in organic sales is the best defence against the introduction and growth of GM crops and GM food.”

Peter Melchett, policy director, Soil Association

A giant 'No' in GM maize created by Greenpeace activists However, as has always been the case with GM, the most significant changes are coming in the USA. The continuing campaigning for labelling of GM food in the US market shows no sign of slowing down, even though a number of state-by-state popular ballots to introduce GM labelling have been narrowly defeated by pro-GM forces, as a result of huge expenditure by pro-GM businesses. Sales of food with the non-GMO label are growing rapidly in the US, and the American organic market (the largest in the world) continues to expand. American farmers are reported to be returning to non-GM seeds, because of the well documented problems of resistant insects and super weeds, the high cost of GM seeds, lower yields of GM crops, and the higher prices available for non-GM crops. Monsanto is reported to be spending at least half of its research budget on non-GM seed development.

Organic growth

Every year, organic sales are growing around the world, still in double figures in most major European markets, with even higher rates of growth in countries like Brazil and China. In the medium-term, continued growth in organic sales is the best defence against the introduction and growth of GM crops and GM food. As Mark Price, CEO of Waitrose, has said, GM is one-in, all-in technology, and as organic becomes a more significant financial force in agriculture, so its power to stop GM gets stronger. Finally, it is worth noting that research into the health risks of GM crops and of both Roundup and glyphosate continues, and the GM industry still faces the possibility of a fatal blow from new scientific evidence, confirming what many studies have already suggested, namely that GM food poses significant risks to human health.

www.soilassociation.org

CV:
Peter Melchett

Peter Melchett has been policy director of the Soil Association, the UK’s main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001.  He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops. He is a member of the BBC’s Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government’s Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education’s School Lunches Review Panel.  He received an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 2013, was on the Board of the EU’s £12m ‘Quality Low Input Food’ research project, and is a Board member for two EU research projects on low input crops and livestock.

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Mrs R A Franklin 4 years ago

creating seeds which can only be used once is a crime against humanity as bad as war crimes and should be punished.

Reply to Mrs R A Franklin
Rebecca Nesbit 4 years ago

The ‘terminator technology’ you are referring to is illegal and is not a feature of GM seeds being sold around the world

whitestarlion 4 years ago

Agree whole-heartedly with Mrs. Franklin’s comment. I pray that everyone wakes up from the trance of the ‘weasel words’ used by politicians and economists to try and convince us that ‘bad’ is ‘good’.

Rebecca Nesbit 4 years ago

Actually, UK supermarkets have recently relaxed their position on GM in animal feed which doesn’t support Peter’s suggestions that they will be ‘fighting back’.

‘All GM food is safe/unsafe’ is a fallacy | View from the fence 4 years ago

[…] do ongoing tests on the safety of individual varieties, it just means we need to distrust anyone who says that the GM industry faces the fatal blow that “GM food poses significant risks to human […]

Rebecca Nesbit 4 years ago

Before accepting the logical fallacy of Peter’s final claims, it’s worth noting the WHO’s wise position: http://ow.ly/LPZk2

Reply to Rebecca Nesbit
Jonathan Bray 2 years ago

There is not enough evidence from independently funded laboratory tests on the safety of GM crops used for human consumption. I wonder why this is so! with such tests we could then see who is wise.