GENETICALLY MODIFIED crops are on the agenda again as supporters raise fears the EU’s hostility could mean missing out on major benefits.
Genetically modified food is firmly back on the agenda. After a year in which the controversial technology resurfaced as a topic of social, economic and environmental debate, 2014 promises to produce more of the same. The battle lines were drawn long ago, but there is a change in tactics among those who support the technology. Tired of the Frankenfood labels pinned to their developments, researchers and biotech companies are looking beyond the (almost) GM-free borders of Europe to countries that, they say, see the benefits of pest-resistant plants and nutrient-stuffed superfruits.
Take the purple tomato. Developed by scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, the tomatoes have the same potential health benefits as blueberries thanks to their high levels of anthocyanins. They are among the first GM plants that have been developed with consumers rather than farmers in mind – to date the technology has been used principally to benefit growers (mostly outside the EU), with disease or pest-resistant crops.
However, British shoppers are unlikely to see them any time soon, despite the first “bumper harvest” in Ontario, Canada, with sales of GM purple tomato juice possible in the USA within two years. The lead researcher, Professor Cathie Martin from the John Innes Centre, said the restrictions on GM in Europe forced her to look further afield to develop the new crop. Canada is “more enlightened”, she told the BBC. “They look at the trait not the technology and that should be a way we start changing our thinking – asking if what you’re doing is safe and beneficial, not ‘Is it GM and therefore we’re going to reject it completely’.”
Martin isn’t the first scientist to be left frustrated by the EU’s anti-GM stance, and she certainly won’t be the last. A report in January by the all-party group on science and technology in agriculture noted that the “regulatory hostility to biotech is having its most serious impact in agricultural research”, with the German-based BASF and the US major Monsanto withdrawing from Europe. The group suggests Syngenta could follow suit which would condemn the EU, including the UK, to “the global slow lane” in biotechnology.
Owen Paterson, the environment secretary and a keen supporter of GM, told January’s national farming conference in Oxford that Europe could become a “museum of world farming” as the world bypasses the continent using new biotechnologies. As Footprint went to press, Europe was gearing up to vote on whether to give the green light to the first GM crop in 15 years – an insect-resistant maize developed by DuPont and Dow Chemical.
Supporters suggest that waiting another 15 years could be disastrous for UK food security. The organic farming sector argues otherwise.