EU: How can we make sure we stay GM free?

Given that it is a decade since the first GM seeds were sown in the UK, this is an apposite question. Arguably, back then it was easier to express anti-GM sentiments. You merely dressed up in a white boiler suit, ripped up trial sites for GM crops in the dead of night and very likely got arrested.

Now the GM cloud is more nebulous. In fact, thanks to a five-year European moratorium on planting GM crops, it may have appeared as if it had disappeared. UK consumers rejected GM produce so vociferously that only an insane retailer would bother stocking Flavr Savr tomatoes (in which the rotting gene had been removed).

However, there's no room for complacency. Last year, on the back of 'scientific advice', the government backed an EU proposal to overturn bans of GM crops in five EU countries. The green light has now been given for the commercial planting of maize, although, according to Defra, GM crops will probably not be grown commercially in the UK until at least 2008 - which gives everybody something to look forward to. Meanwhile, the US, Canada and Argentina have won a case against Europe through the World Trade Organisation, potentially forcing Europe to open its markets fully to GM produce.

Certainly, global trends suggest we should rouse ourselves from our complacent slumber. Last year marked the planting of the billionth acre of GM crops as 8.5m farmers in 21 countries now farm transgenic (GM) crops. This growth is despite the fact that, contrary to assertions from the biotech industry, there is still no proof that GM crops are the same as non-GM crops, nor conclusive evidence that GM has no adverse affect on health. And there's the very thorny issue of cross-pollination of non-GM crops, especially of organic crops. A University of Chicago study found one transgenic plant was 20 times more likely to interbreed with related plants than its natural counterpart.

At its most picturesque, GM was described by biotechs as the 'golden rice bowl'. Well, there's still no GM rice, nor has any crop been introduced specifically for the purpose of alleviating poverty. Meanwhile, Monsanto has withdrawn a 1999 agreement not to commercialise so-called 'Terminator Technology', GM crops which produce sterile seeds. Potentially this could mean some 1.4bn small farmers in the developing world having to buy their next season's seed from biotechs, rather than 'seed saving' in the traditional way.

Globally, soy consumption has increased by an average of 4.5m tonnes a year since 1970, most of it to feed an expanding global animal herd. Brazil, a major producer with capacity to meet growing demand, is currently deciding whether to stay predominantly GM-free or to follow the transgenic route like Argentina.

The latter route would represent a biotech victory, but a Pyrrhic one. Leaving aside the fact that many people believe GM to be a threat to the biological integrity of the planet, GM soy monoculture in Argentina has caused serious social and economic problems. According to Friends of the Earth, it's time for UK consumers to lobby retailers (see to support non-GM Brazilian soy. That way, you can express anti-GM sentiments, and without the white boiler suit.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 181 Food and Agriculture
  • 183 Environment

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