The GM Debate: Has Owen Paterson Predetermined His Analysis?

The stigma surrounding genetically modified crops is yet to be wholly unpacked, its myths debunked and its associated facts objectively assessed. Following this week’s speech by Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, it seems that we may be bearing to witness the revitalisation of the old Blairite argument for so-called ‘Frankenfoods’ in the UK and across Europe.

Speaking enthusiastically on the role of GM in the global drive for the sustainable intensification of farming, the Secretary of State took great care to stress what the government  believes to be the value of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in combating worldwide food shortages; a problem that was estimated to have left 1.02 billion undernourished in the year 2009.

While the Secretary of State should be applauded for re-initiating a long overdue analysis of the issue, especially in relation to European trade and production law, his unreserved optimism on the immediate outcome of GM farming certainly comes across as a touch complacent when pitched against hard evidence of the overall benefits that UK and EU farmers can derive from GM in its current stage of development.

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In the face of food price spikes and localised food shortages in European countries, there is undoubtedly a temptation to look to the progress of GMOs in the United States and to arrive at the conclusion that GM-farming is the ‘miracle cure’ needed to rebalance European farming. On some levels, this temptation may be constructive. The mass of regulation in the European market surrounding GM will undoubtedly stifle European competitiveness by prohibiting the market access of GM based product in the long term. In line with current regulation, only two GM based products have been granted market access in the European Union, compared to twenty-five in the United States. With procedures taking up to four years to grant market access for such crops, the Secretary of State is right to suggest that the European Union takes a more open approach to its Member States’ policies on new technology, or to expect EU farmers to be outstripped and undercut by their US counterparts in the long run. More elasticity in the ban on market access is surely the first step to embracing GM as a viable alternative technology.

A more flexible approach does not, however, necessarily guarantee an immediate growth-spurt in the European agricultural sector. Successful examples of bio-fortification (inter-species genetic re-engineering to offer greater versatility in the face of severe weather conditions) and accelerated breeding should, on the proviso that they are ecologically sound, be encouraged into the market, but current evidence of successful projects supporting the advantages of GM amongst native crop species is insubstantial. In his enthusiasm for GM technology, the Secretary of State appears to have overlooked the obvious evidence on the short-term suitability of GM in Europe, begging the question as to whether he has side-lined his personal commitment to science-based policy in favour of a pre-determined supposition of the utility of GM.

GM crops have had a mixed response in the US, where roughly 66.8milllion hectares are dedicated to this method of farming. It is clear from the vast progress made in soya and cotton producer holdings that GM does indeed have great potential in improving efficiency and output per hectare. In other sectors however, disappointing results have been noted, with farmers paying far more per hectare for GM crops, and seeing falls in yield and little change in required quantities of pesticides. The cost-benefit ratio must significantly increase before the technology becomes a feasible alternative to conventional farming methods.

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The cost-benefit analysis of the technology is easily distorted by the figures, leading to the conclusion that GM is an affordable alternative; with over 90% of farmers planting GM belonging to the ‘small farm’ category, based in developing countries. Based on this statistic, simple deduction might suggest that GM is clearly smart and cost-effective. Conversely, it is more than likely that the failure of conventional methods in developing countries as a result of extreme weather conditions has led to an inevitable and unavoidable exploration of GM. Without a one-size-fits-all ecological template to follow, there is no evidence to suggest that in certain crop types, where conventional methods have proven successful, there is an immediate necessity to implement GM, with the cost usually outweighing gains in terms of output.

Ultimately, Owen Paterson’s decision to further pursue discussion of genetic modification technologies marks a vital progression in the necessary exploration of alternative methods to ensure food security. However, market successes and measurable output gains will only be significant once we accept that GM is still a ‘potential’ tool, which requires sufficient further exploration, funding and attention – especially in more commercial farming sectors – before it is a feasible finished product, and complimentary to organic and conventional farming in the market share. Paterson must be careful not to predetermine the impact of GM in its current state, and to avoid the inevitable disappointment which will undoubtedly follow an overstatement of its current abilities to transform European farming.

Laura Brown

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