IN EUROPE, genetically modified crops have remained in labs while the rest of the world plants more and more. Does the technology need a champion?
It seemed apt that the Footprint Forum to discuss the sensitive issue of genetically modified (GM) crops took place in a secure room deep within the United States embassy in London. For while the rest of the world embraces the technology – citing various sustainability benefits from fewer pesticides to less tilling – Europe, at large, continues to deride it. Of the 170m hectares of GM crops grown in the world last year, just 132,000 hectares were cultivated in Europe.
This apathy has seen big biotech companies pull the plug on research into European crops. Instead, their European sites develop GM crops for the rest of the world. For those opposed to the controversial technology, that’s how things should stay: GMs confined to laboratories and, at a push, small field-scale trials. For those who support it, as one tool in the box to help feed a population set to hit nine billion by 2050, this is seen as a waste – and a risk.
“Science and technology have been demonised, but they deliver,” said Jack Bobo, the senior adviser for biotechnology at the US State Department. “Agriculture is cleaner and better than it ever has been and everything farmers do today, they do better than they ever have done in the past.”
Bobo, a keynote speaker at February’s Forum, spotlighted the various benefits of GM crops seen around the world, including reduced pesticide use, reduced soil erosion and improved yields. “Over 19bn kilos of greenhouse gases have also been saved,” he said.
His support of the technology was echoed by Professor Ian Crute, chief scientist at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, who explained that farmers needed “every tool in the box” to ensure that food supply can meet growing demand in the face of a variety of challenges.
Crute argued that Europe has long been wasting opportunities in a technology that can cut breeding times from 12 years to 12 months: GM sugar beet, as an example, was “lost in the GM furore in the UK but has taken off in California”.
“For any one crop, there are many problems to cope with – and they will only get worse,” he added. “Pests and diseases are on the move” and there are “major challenges. Look at potato blight – growers spray 15 times a season and still can’t control it.”
Last month BASF abandoned efforts to gain EU approval for a GM blight-resistant potato, blaming “uncertainty in the regulatory environment and threats of field destructions”. Both Bobo and Crute said the European regulatory process was a barrier, with Bobo suggesting that losing access to EU markets would hurt the US. Indeed, in opening the forum, the US embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Barbara Stephenson, said it was “fair to say that Europe is not embracing biotechnology” and “to put it bluntly we really like a global market for the crops we grow”.
Of course, Europe does import GM crops – perhaps more of them than consumers, and some in the audience, realise. Biotech is already critically important to Europe: it is the second largest importing region in the world. UK livestock is reared on GM feed, for instance (see page 6). “It’s important consumers know that livestock is fed GM soya – the average person doesn’t know these things,” said Bobo.
The question of who should take responsibility for educating buyers was the focus for much of the forum’s discussion session. Andy Milner, the procurement and supply chain director at Westbury Street Holdings, said a “vocal minority” of his clients ask about GM. It is the same for consumers, explained Nicole Patterson, the principal analyst at Leatherhead Food Research. “Consumers don’t know what to think about [GM] and they want more information about it,” she said. When Leatherhead asked consumers how they’d prefer to receive such information, “80% said TV documentaries and two-thirds said food programmes and celebrity chefs”.
According to research by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), 26% of consumers have not even heard of GM, while 30% “know a little bit” about it. In fact, just “one or two per cent” volunteer GM as a piece of information they want when considering whether to buy a product. Much more important are price, nutrition and sell-by dates, said the FSA head of novel foods, Sandy Lawrie. He said he wanted to see “more [GM] products on shelves so people can choose”, but the supermarkets’ policies on GM-free had made consumers suspicious of the technology. Patterson also pointed out that words such as “contamination” are frightening for consumers. There is a suggestion that the food industry is equally afraid of the technology, which is why it is waiting for the government to take the lead. An aide to the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, has indicated he wants to “have a national conversation” about GM food, but the minister believes the food sector has a role in making the case for growing and selling GM in the UK. In a Footprint poll after the forum, just 12% said the government should lead the debate on GM, while 88% said it should be opinion formers and thought leaders. In a world of big corporates and supposed villains, is there anyone brave enough to be a GM hero?