Year of debate over future of genetically modified crops likely

One certain topic of 2011 will be genetically modified crops. Do we stay on the fringes of the experiment or follow the US and China? Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, offers this as food for thought.

In 2002, there was a cartoon depicting two anti-GM protesters, one of whom was looking worried as he pointed to a headline which read: "European Studies say GMOs Safe." The other protester comforted him, saying: "That's OK, this campaign was never based on science anyway."

The European Commission has just updated that report of 2002. It now covers 25 years of research on the safety and environmental impact of GM crops, carried out by 500 independent groups of scientists in Europe. The conclusion of its 268 pages? "According to the projects' results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs (GM organisms) with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms."

There will be pressure groups that will dismiss the results, as they did in 2002. But considering that this report came out of Europe, which has more regulations around the use of GM ingredients in food, and around the cultivation of GM crops, than anywhere in the world, it is difficult to see how this information can be dismissed so lightly.

Perhaps we will hear the argument that farmers do not want GM crops and that they do not work as well as non-GM crops? The facts do not support that argument either: last year over 14 million farmers chose to grow a GM crop in 25 different countries on an area the size of the UK, Ireland, France and Germany put together. And when UK farmers, including many from Yorkshire, trialled GM oilseed rape, they found an immediate increase in yields over and above the conventional crop they were growing alongside. Does that sound like a failed technology?

Maybe the anti-GM groups will fall back on the mantra that consumers will not buy GM products? Well, interestingly enough, a recent consumer survey, published last month by the European Commission, sheds some light on this debate. Although some of the questions asked were somewhat leading, such as "Do you agree that GM is fundamentally unnatural?", which naturally got some agreement, 60 percent of British people agreed that GM helps people in developing countries and 25 percent disagreed – which will be a comfort to the 13 million resource-poor farmers in Africa and Asia who have already adopted the technology. Perhaps most surprising was the response to another leading question: "Do you agree that GM is not good for me or my family?" The same number of British people surveyed disagreed with this statement as agreed with it.

During an online debate about GM involving the science editor from a national newspaper and a representative from the organic sector, the editor asked the lobbyist what evidence would convince him that genetic engineering was neither unsafe nor environmentally damaging. When an answer wasn't forthcoming, the editor remarked: "I asked again. And again. I never got an answer".

Actually, the answer is clear. As the cartoon in 2002 said, this campaign was never based on science anyway.

Julian Little is Communications & Government Affairs Manager for Bayer CropScience Limited.

CW 1/1/11