* EU States Stay Deadlocked Over GM Maize Imports
* Europe's Science-Free Plan for Gene-Modified Crops
* Autar and Avtar Discover the Fountain of Youth, in Tomatoes
* I’ll Have The Purple Tomato Please, Dr Frankenstein
EU States Stay Deadlocked Over GM Maize Imports
- Reuters, June 29, 2010
European Union farm ministers failed to agree on Tuesday to approve six genetically modified (GM) maize varieties for import to the bloc, despite a warning that inaction could lead to a shortage of animal feed. Following the deadlock, the import applications for use in food and feed can now be approved unilaterally by the bloc's executive, the European Commission.
In principle that could happen "within a few weeks", but the Commission has not yet decided whether the approval will be granted before or after the European summer break, a spokesman for the EU executive told Reuters. Before the vote, EU Health and Consumer Commissioner John Dalli told ministers that authorisations should be approved as a priority to avoid any repeat of last year's disruption to feed imports.
That was caused by the EU's zero-tolerance policy on unapproved GM material in imports -- shipments of animal feed from the United States were refused entry to the bloc after minute traces of unapproved GM material were discovered in the cargo.
The Commission has said it will propose a small tolerance margin for unapproved GM in imports later this year to resolve the issue, but until then the only solution is for the EU to approve varieties individually for import.
One of the applications was to renew a previous EU approval for the insect-resistant Bt11 maize, developed by Swiss-based biotech company Syngenta (SYNN.VX), which expired in 2007. "A positive endorsement would effectively have signalled to key trading partners that the EU regulatory system for GMOs is functioning properly and would have helped to defuse mounting trade tensions," said Syngenta spokesman Medard Schoenmaeckers. "Syngenta is disappointed that once again, member states could not come to a decision."
The other five covered new approvals for "stacked" maize varieties, developed by combining existing insect- and herbicide-resistant GM maize varieties together using conventional plant breeding techniques. One was developed by Syngenta, two were developed jointly by subsidiaries of US chemicals companies DuPont (DD.N) and Dow Chemical (DOW.N), and a further two were developed by Monsanto (MON.N).
Europe's Science-Free Plan for Gene-Modified Crops
- Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, June 29, 2010
A plan is afoot to bring genetically modified crops – mostly resisted for a decade – into Europe's fields.
Currently, European Union countries opposed to GM crops use a voting system that can delay a variety from being grown anywhere in Europe even after it's been cleared of posing any risks to human health or the environment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which vets all applications for Europe-wide approval of crops for growth and human consumption.
The result of years of deadlock is that Europe's farmers are allowed to grow only two GM crops at present – a type of maize called MON863 and a potato called Amflora – compared with the dozens of varieties grown elsewhere in the world.
On 13 July, the 27 member states of the EU will vote on a plan to overhaul the current regulations, but there are concerns that the proposed solution will compromise Europe's current obligation to judge GM crops solely on science. As part of the solution, individual countries will be allowed to give socio-economic or cultural reasons for banning cultivation of GM crops.
The proposed solution has come out of the EU's executive body, the European Commission. Consumer protection commissioner John Dalli argues that nations opposed to GM crops should be free to ban them from cultivation on non-scientific grounds.
The hoped-for payback is that those same nations end their current tactic of stalling the approval process for each submission to grow GM crops in the European Union. The existing Europe-wide process for approving GM crops would carry on as it is, with the EFSA having the final say on whether crops are harmless enough to human health and the environment to be safely grown anywhere in Europe.
Ways around science
This pre-eminence of science in the Europe-wide approval process is the main reason why member states will have to be given other reasons to introduce bans on their own territories. "It would have to be on non-scientific grounds, as it is the EFSA's very role to take the science into account when doing its safety assessments of new genetically modified organisms," says Alexander Stein, an independent consultant in Seville, Spain, who formerly worked at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in the same city.
"Therefore, grounds for banning a GM crop by individual member states can only be socio-economic or cultural ones," he says. "It's a dangerous precedent, as it could then be applied to any new technology, such as nanotechnology or stem cells," says a source at Europabio, the organisation representing biotechnology companies.
But this part of the Dalli plan – to allow individual countries to ban cultivation – can't be enacted legally for at least a couple of years. To allow bans almost immediately, Dalli has proposed interim guidelines which would allow anti-GM countries to effectively exclude GM crops from their territories by giving them the right to set minimum distances to stop contamination between GM and non-GM fields. Such national regulations could make it impossible to grow GM crops anywhere in a particular country.
Again, this has been attacked as unscientific, as it would allow "banning" member states to dream up any distance they choose to exclude GM crops. Also, the Dalli interim plan would allow member states to set their own minimum contamination levels, instead of the 0.9 per cent threshold that currently applies throughout the EU.
"By making lower thresholds legal, the commission opens up a Pandora's box for nations to set their own levels, which is very destructive for legal predictability," says the Europabio source. "The EU claims to have a science-based regulation system, but if they allow this, they can no longer claim that."
It seems that the environmental groups and the "banning" countries – Germany, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary and Greece – are equally unhappy with the Dalli plan. "This is looking a bit like a trap," says Adrian Bebb of the Friends of the Earth lobby group, which is opposed to GM crops.
The worry of anti-GM countries is that the proposed legislation is too weak to give legal redress to farmers in the "banning" states whose fields are contaminated by GM pollen or seed drift from neighbouring countries, or who buy organic seeds that turn out to contain GM seeds too. "We're calling on member states to reject it," says Bebb, who has seen the full draft.
Dalli's biggest gamble – that anti-GM countries will stop opposing approval of new GM varieties in return for their new right to ban cultivation – may also backfire. Instead, they may simply carry on blocking all GM approvals. "It's not going to happen, because they're not going to vote at EU level for something they've banned domestically," says the Europabio source. "We're concerned about a European approach to GM that deviates away from science-based decision-making, and instead injecting arbitrary politics into the system."
Gene Leads to Longer Shelf Life for Tomatoes, Possibly Other Fruits
- Purdue University, June 29, 2010
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University researcher has found a sort of fountain of youth for tomatoes that extends their shelf life by about a week.
Avtar Handa, a professor of horticulture, found that adding a yeast gene increases production of a compound that slows aging and delays microbial decay in tomatoes. Handa said the results, published in the early online version of The Plant Journal, likely would transfer to most fruits. "We can inhibit the aging of plants and extend the shelf life of fruits by an additional week for tomatoes," Handa said. "This is basic fundamental knowledge that can be applied to other fruits."
The organic compound spermidine is a polyamine and is found in all living cells. Polyamines' functions aren't yet fully understood. Handa and Autar Mattoo, a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and collaborator in the research, had shown earlier that polyamines such as spermidine and spermine enhance nutritional and processing quality of tomato fruits. "At least a few hundred genes are influenced by polyamines, maybe more," Mattoo said. "We see that spermidine is important in reducing aging. It will be interesting to discover what other roles it can have."
Savithri Nambeesan, who was a graduate student in Handa's laboratory, introduced the yeast spermidine synthase gene, which led to increased production of spermidine in the tomatoes. Fully ripe tomatoes from those plants lasted about eight days longer before showing signs of shriveling compared with non-transgenic plants. Decay and rot symptoms associated with fungi were delayed by about three days.
"It increased the quality of the fruit," Handa said. "If a tomato goes to market, people won't buy it if it has started to shrivel. If we can stop that wrinkling, we can extend the market time of the fruit."
Mattoo said the finding could have implications for areas that don't often get fresh fruit. "Shelf life is a major problem for any produce in the world, especially in countries such as in Southeast Asia and Africa that cannot afford controlled-environment storage," Mattoo said.
Handa said tomato growers and possibly other fruit growers could use the finding soon if they wanted through either transgenic plants or natural breeding methods. "We can add this gene to the tomatoes or look at natural variation and select the cultivars that already have a high level of this gene's expression," Handa said.
Handa and Mattoo will continue to study polyamines to discover how they control biological functions in fruits. The US-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund, the USDA Initiative for Future Agricultural Food Systems, and the Purdue Research Foundation funded the research.
Abstract on the research in this release is available at: http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/research/2010/100628HandaTomato.html
I’ll Have The Purple Tomato Please, Dr Frankenstein
- Richard Girling, Sunday Times (UK), June 27, 2010 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/
'Without genetically modified foods, can the world feed itself? As new trials begin, we argue that GM crops are good for people and the planet
Dr Eugenio Butelli of Norwich's John Innes Centre, home of the purple tomato (Steve Schofield) In their peculiar way, psoralens are brilliant. Pack a few extra ones into celery, for example, and you’ll get some interesting results. First, the modified plants will acquire an almost magical ability to repel pests — great news for growers, who can cut their pesticide bills, and great for the environment. But there is a problem. Like all toxins, psoralens mean what they say. They are toxic.
Mice fed on psoralen-enhanced celery die from cancer, and people handling it get skin rashes. What else would you expect? We are not gods. If we fiddle with nature, then we’ll get what we deserve. But there is a twist. The bug-resistant celery was not concocted in a petri dish by some mad manipulator shuffling genes. It was bred in the old-fashioned way by plant selection in the field. This is why it didn’t hit the headlines.
GM foods — derived by transferring genetic traits from one organism to another — mark the point at which scientific hubris tips over into nemesis
What you will have heard, over and again, is that GM foods — derived by transferring genetic traits from one organism to another — mark the point at which scientific hubris tips over into nemesis.
To eat from this sci-fi menu would be akin to declaring biological warfare on ourselves.
We would be volunteering for cancer.
Fields and hedgerows would be overrun by monstrous insects and gigantic, unstoppable weeds. A few amoral chancers would be made extremely rich while poor farmers would stare at barren earth.
The Lib-Con coalition’s decision to approve a field trial of GM potatoes earlier this month provoked outrage.
“The government,” said Friends of the Earth (FoE), “is wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money by forging ahead with unnecessary and unpopular GM crops trials, which threaten local farmers with contamination… We can feed a growing global population without trashing the planet or resorting to factory farms and GM crops — the government must help farmers shift to planet-friendly farming.”
The formerly cautious Lib Dems seem happy to go along with the exercise (it’s a scientific, not a commercial, trial), even if some grass-roots activists will be less forgiving.
The new environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, has been much more explicit than her Labour predecessor in promoting biotechnology as a force for good and moving it towards the political mainstream. GM, she insists, “can bring benefits in food to the marketplace” and help developing countries feed themselves.
She welcomes the new trial of blight-resistant potatoes and applauds the reality that “developments in crop breeding and precision agriculture that might have been viewed as science fiction are now clearly science fact”.
Science fact they may be, but public acceptance is a different matter altogether. “Our big problem is to overcome fear,” says Professor Jonathan Jones at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, which is running the potato trial. “We have to help supermarkets explain to their customers that this technology is environmentally beneficial and has no health risks. What people completely fail to do is consider the cost of not doing it.”
The size of the hurdle was demonstrated this year when the Indian government halted the commercial cultivation of genetically modified aubergines. FoE congratulated the country’s environment minister for having “listened to the concerns of scientists, farmers and the public”. Local “food security experts” welcomed India’s salvation from biological meltdown, and an organic proselytiser announced that “independent studies” in Europe had shown that a shopping list of human ills — fertility loss, organ failure and immune deficiency — could all be “correlated with GM food”. There may be a half-truth buried somewhere in all that, but you’d need a magnifying glass to find it.
In fact the Indian government’s own scientific advisers had said the pest-resistant aubergines were safe to eat and beneficial to the environment. It was not science that kept the crop out of the ground, it was politics. In the same way, it is politics that bars GM seed from the European Union, whose own scientific adviser, the European Food Safety Authority, is used to having its judgments thrown back in its face. It is politics that drives British supermarkets to promise a frightened populace that their products are “GM free”, and politics that leaves Europe trailing the rest of the world in a technology it once led.
The concerned shopper, with her jute bag and penchant for unwashed veg, just knows GM food would be bad for her family, and nobody at Tesco is going to tell her she’s an idiot. Yet GM will not go away. It will come because it must. A billion people go hungry every day, and by mid-century the global population is projected to reach 9 billion. The world by then will need 50% more food, and it will have to grow it in an increasingly difficult, drought-prone environment. Already we hear an echo of wartime, with governments worrying about “food security”.
Battle now looms between those who, like Spelman and Jones, believe the world’s appetite has outstripped what an unaided nature can provide, and the peasant-in-aspic romantics who believe we can learn all we need from the example of medieval smallholders. With no sense of irony, FoE castigates the government for listening to biotech industry propaganda, while continuing to pump out propaganda of its own. The concerned shopper can’t peer-review the scientific evidence, so we’re left with rhetorical mortar fire in which each side selects the data that supports its case and ignores anything that doesn’t.
Also into the churn goes a seething hatred of seed giants such as Monsanto. Although it has tried hard to repair its reputation by, for example, giving away its patents to vitamin-A-enhanced golden rice, which could reduce child mortality and blindness in developing countries, and by contributing drought-tolerant corn technology to the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) project, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, it still can’t shake off the historic taint of Agent Orange, toxic dumping and bovine growth hormone. If this godfather of biotechnology is for something, then it follows that anyone with a functioning moral compass must be against.
Much of the racket is kicked up by the organic lobby — proud providers of fine if expensive food, and shameless self-mythologisers. It is the only sec tor that claims it could feed the world on its own. Conventional agriculture doesn’t claim this; nor does GM.
Organics is faith-based agriculture. A fact not dwelt upon by its adherents is that organic farmers do well to harvest 4.5 tonnes of wheat from a hectare and sometimes manage only three. Conventional farmers get more than 9 and sometimes better than 10. Simple arithmetic says that in an organic future we would need at least twice as much land to maintain our current yield, never mind increasing it by half.
Even that fails to take account of the fallow years needed in organic rotation systems. Every sod of earth would have to be ploughed up, releasing gales of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, water and reducing wild places to ecological pauperism.
Conventional agriculture, too, would be hard-pressed to fill the granaries. Huge yield-gains over the past 50 years have come from selective breeding, but the graph is levelling off. Plant breeding is a slow, unpredictable process that has little hope of feeding every mouth by 2050. And it’s not just a question of yield.
There has to be an end to waste. This means defeating pests and weeds while simultaneously cutting back on fertilisers, chemicals and water, and shrinking the farm industry’s huge carbon footprint. So how can it be done? Britain’s organic flag-bearer, the Soil Association, likes to point out that GM crops are grown on only 4% of the world’s agricultural land, but neglects to mention that this is rising rapidly and that by 2009 it was accounting for 77% of the world’s soya (much of which is used to feed European livestock), almost half of the cotton, more than a quarter of the maize and a fifth of the oilseed rape.
In 2009, 14m farmers in 25 countries grew 134m hectares of GM crops. The absence of Britain from the list is due in no small part to the Soil Association’s policy director Peter Melchett, who in 1999, as the then executive director of Greenpeace, led the 28-strong commando that famously trashed a trial crop of GM maize in Norfolk.
The war against potato cyst nematodes is never going to bring banners onto the street, but it is a fight worth winning
There was much back-slapping when the jury at Norwich Crown Court acquitted them of criminal damage, and Melchett himself saluted the decision with ironclad moral certainty.
The gauntlet was down, a precedent set. Leeds University knew it was tempting fate two years ago when it planted a trial of 400 GM potato plants on land near Tadcaster. Surrounded by cereals, the trial occupied no more than a tenth of a hectare in a two-hectare field.
It was not easy to spot, but secrecy was impossible. By fiat of the notoriously GM-phobic EU, field trials have to be public knowledge, which persuaded Defra to post a six-figure map reference straight onto its website. Inside two weeks, all the plants had been torn from the soil and the science destroyed.
Last year the university tried again, abandoning discretion in favour of security fencing, cameras, lighting, guards — everything short of gun towers. Within its ring of steel the trial successfully ran its course, but the sheer cost warped the economics. This is how the war is being won and lost. The cost of security — at least £100,000 in that case — has driven commercial GM research out of the country. Even Monsanto has melted away. Academic research survives only because it is publicly funded.
But “academic” doesn’t mean unrealistic. The war against potato cyst nematodes is never going to bring banners onto the street, but it is a fight worth winning. Nematodes are microscopic worms that attack plant roots. Every year they hit UK potato farmers for around £65m in crop losses and pesticide costs. Worldwide, nematode damage totals some £60 billion.
Hence the Leeds potato trial. The scientists, led by Professors Howard Atkinson and Peter Urwin from the university’s Centre for Plant Sciences, took a protein that occurs naturally in rice and maize, and put it in the roots of potato plants. The protein impairs the worms’ digestion so they languish and can’t breed effectively. In glasshouse trials another gene has stripped the nematode of its ability to detect the plant odour that attracts it to feed. Result: fewer nematodes find the roots, and those that do fail to thrive. Up goes the crop. Down goes the need for pesticide.
Even so, the implications become fully apparent only in the university’s glasshouse, which is packed with banana plants. These are not the squashy yellow supermarket favourites. They are green cooking bananas and plantains — one of the staple foods of Africa. Their roots, too, swarm with nematodes, costing 6m tonnes of fruit a year, which is why the Leeds group is partnering a team in Uganda to repeat the work they have done with potatoes. “We’ll test here in the glasshouse,” says Professor Atkinson. “Then they’ll field-trial in Uganda.”
If that works, the next stage will be to implant resistance to other plant destroyers — weevils, bacterial wilt and black sigatoka. The beneficiaries will be African subsistence farmers, their families and communities. In a similar multinational collaboration, the university is working with an Indian team on nematode-resistant rice. On its own, this might not be enough to convince sceptics that GM is the way forward, but at least it should invite critical re-examination of the “record profits for big businesses” mantra.
The Leeds potatoes were the only GM field trial in Britain last year. The results are still being assessed, but the indications are that it did to the nematodes all that it was supposed to. This, though, was not the only point of inquiry.
A central plank of the case against GM is that it will reduce biodiversity and cause irreversible environmental damage. Finding out if such fears are justified is a vital part of the scientists’ work. Professor Atkinson, who leads the banana trial, compares the vandalism to book-burning — a denial of knowledge. “We are scientists and our job is to provide evidence,” he says. “Without it the public can’t make up their minds.”
Potatoes and bananas, in fact, present little or no risk of corruption to other plants. Having travelled from South America, potatoes have no native wild species to cross with, while bananas are sterile and have no pollen. What interested the Leeds team was the influence of the GM crop on the soil.
For this reason they measured the effects of the crop on all nematodes, including the friendly ones that eat bacteria. “What we showed,” says Atkinson, “is that our GM potatoes had less influence on soil communities than conventional oilseed rape.”
It is this very earthen worthiness that makes the message so hard to get across. “Benign invertebrates unharmed in potato trial” is not a headline to quicken a news-editor’s pulse. To find something more exotic, I visit the John Innes Centre (JIC) at Norwich, a world-famous plant-research community funded by the government-backed Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
In the coffee bar Professor Cathie Martin and Dr Eugenio Butelli place on the table sections of tomato. They are identical to every tomato I have ever seen, save for one striking detail — they are deep imperial purple. The colour, imported from snapdragons, is a spectacular by-product of research designed to make the fruit healthier to eat. The tomatoes extended the lives of cancerous mice by a full 30%, while adding two weeks to their own shelf life. Because the JIC is publicly funded, it suffers no taint of corporate greed and its researchers can afford to take a longer view. Professor Giles Oldroyd, JIC’s deputy director of science, says he will be satisfied if his work on wheat reaches the fields “in my lifetime”.
Professor Martin and Dr Butelli place on the table sections of tomato. They are identical to every tomato I have seen, save they are purple
By any standards wheat is the big one. It is so genetically complex that nobody yet has produced a commercial GM variety, yet the potential for agriculture is as big as anything since Charles “Turnip” Townshend came up with four-field crop rotation in the 18th century. Some crops — beans, for example — naturally “fix” nitrogen in the ground and keep it healthy. Others, such as wheat, put nothing back and leave the soil exhausted. This was the reason for Townshend’s crop rotation, and it is why modern fields are so hungry for nitrogen fertiliser.
This is a matter of real consequence. Nitrogen fertiliser is an environmental nightmare. The manufacture, transport and application of it accounts for at least a third — some say half — of agriculture’s carbon footprint. As farming worldwide is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after power generation and heating, it makes nitrogen a powerful driver of climate change.
Even that may not be the worst of it. Most crop plants take up only half the fertiliser fed to them, leaving the rest to leach into aquifers, rivers and the sea. This is an authentic disaster. According to the UN, by 2004 the oceans contained some 150 “dead zones” where over-enrichment by fertilisers and sewage triggered vast algal blooms that sucked all the oxygen out of the water and suffocated the fish. One zone in the Gulf of Mexico was twice the size of Wales. The report’s author, Robert Diaz, professor of marine science at the University of Maryland, warned that dead zones would become a worse threat to fish stocks than overfishing.
Thus it happens, bizarrely, that the future of fish may lie in the hands of plant scientists. Bizarrely, too, one of the best ways they can help is by creating heavier crops. The recent bulging harvests of American maize show why. Through better plant breeding and soil science, and with no increase in the application rate of fertiliser, yields shot up from 1.5 tonnes per hectare in the 1920s to a record 11 tonnes in 2009. Result: between 1975 and 2005 the amount of nitrogen needed to grow a tonne of corn fell by 30%. Not much of this was due to biotechnology — GM maize has been grown only since 1996 — but the message is clear. Heavier harvests mean less fertiliser per kilo of food.
The dream is a crop that fixes its own nitrogen and needs no feeding at all. This is the long and difficult road on which Giles Oldroyd is embarking at the JIC. In the short term, biotech companies are trying to make plants at least use nitrogen more efficiently, and so need less of it. This has already been done experimentally with rice and oilseed rape. Whatever happens, food in future will owe as much to science as to husbandry. The question is: which science? “It’s not a choice between organics and GM,” says Oldroyd. “It’s a choice between feeding the world through chemistry or through biology.”
[Image]Are GM foods really the horror story that certain enviornmental groups make out? (David Dees) Europe’s addiction to chemicals will not be easy to break. Once again the sacrificial goat has been the humble potato. Not for nothing has “blight” entered the language as a label for terminal decay.
In its original sense as a plant disease, it is an engine of devastation. In Ireland during the potato famines of the 1840s it led to the death of one person in eight. Worldwide, potato late blight is a £3.5 billion problem, and farmers in Britain spend £50m a year on chemical controls, spraying 12 to 18 times a year.
“In the wet summer of 2007,” says Professor Jones of the Sainsbury Lab, “Europe actually ran out of chemicals to control late blight. Farmers had been spraying from helicopters because the ground was too muddy for tractors. Some organic farmers had their entire cro ps wiped out.”
The good news is that a GM solution now exists; the bad is that no European farmers can get their hands on it. The most recent completed trial of blight-resistant potatoes in Britain was two years ago, and the world’s largest chemical company, BASF, last year suspended its research. The reason was the political shut-out in Brussels. Although the EU’s own European Food Safety Authority had declared the GM potatoes safe, there was no way through the political wire.
“It’s a sad and backward step,” says Meurig Raymond, deputy president of the National Farmers Union and himself a potato grower. “Farmers need access to every tool in the box to be able to produce more and impact less on the environment. We need new varieties that have better resistance to pests and diseases, and will be less reliant on sprays and fertiliser. What we need now is the applied research and field trials that turn the genetic discoveries and smart breeding techniques into crops farmers can grow.”
Farmers need access to every tool in the box to be able to produce more and impact less on the environment
It now falls to the Sainsbury Lab to pick up the baton. Its field trial follows the successful transfer of blight-resistant genes from South American wild potatoes into the commercial variety Desiree. But planting the trial is just the first in a formidable line of obstacles. The trial plot will have to survive the vandals. If it does, and the scientists get the result they expect, then their findings will have to be validated by the European food-safety watchdog — a long, tortuous and costly process that will reward them with even bigger obstacles at the end.
It doesn’t matter what the science says. It’s the political voice that counts, and the European political voice says “no”. In 15 years it has allowed a small number of GM products — cotton, maize, oilseed rape, sugarbeet and soya — to be imported to the EU, but has slammed the door on anything actually being grown here.
The only exceptions are a single variety of maize, developed by Monsanto and grown in Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Slovakia, and a potato developed for starch production, rather than human consumption, by BASF.
The politicians don’t actually turn applications down. They procrastinate. If scientists report that a crop is safe, they will simply be asked to think again. Then again, and again. The BASF starch potato had to rattle round the system for 13 years before it got the green light in March. And even if a GM crop did survive the obstacle course, it would still need a seed company willing to take a punt on it, supermarkets willing to put it on their shelves, and customers capable of understanding that DNA is not some kind of alien substance peculiar to “Frankenstein foods” but part of every mouthful ever swallowed.
The august British Medical Journal pointed out the irrationality of public fear as long ago as February 1999: “How many people stop to consider the viable yet unknown genes of tomato, cucumber and lettuce in a salad, the bovine genes in a beef steak, the fragmented DNA in many processed foods, and the genes of the many microorganisms that we breathe and swallow?”
Conventional foods are no more “natural” than GM and could not exist without human intervention. But whereas GM foods are tested with the kind of rigour normally reserved for cancer drugs, the conventional stuff leaps straight from field to plate with no questions asked. Consider psoralens. Consider acetaldehyde methylformylhydrazone, allyl isothiocyanate, crotonaldehyde, 1-hydroxyanthraquinone, or any others in a very long list of scary-sounding chemicals known to cause cancer in rodents and to occur abundantly in fruit and vegetables.
While Europe dithers, the rest of the world is forging ahead, and still awaits the crises in health and the environment that the doomsayers promised them. Ninety per cent of the world’s GM is grown in developing countries, where farms are small and workers generally poorly protected from the risks of handling poisons. Researchers in China found that farmers growing GM rice had enjoyed not just heavier crops but better health. Almost 11% of farmers’ families growing conventional rice complained of being made ill by pesticides. Those trialling a pest-resistant GM variety suffered no ill effects at all.
There are environmental improvements too. Because the resistance in GM crops is specific to pests, other insects are unaffected. Echoing reports from India and China, the Australian government’s national science agency found that beneficial insects thrive on unsprayed GM cotton much more than they do on pesticide-drenched conventional varieties. Birds return to feed and a ravaged ecology begins to recover. GM cotton was not introduced until 2002, but already accounts for 87% of India’s national crop, improving quality and enabling the country to transform itself from a net importer to a net exporter.
This is not to say that there are no pitfalls. At the seed giant Syngenta’s enormous research station in Berkshire, I am shown terrifying pictures of giant ragweed dwarfing humans and wrecking a field of American soya. It is an authentic glimpse into the sceptics’ nightmare. Repeated exposure to glyphosate weedkiller, to which the soya is immune, has resulted in the ragweed developing resistance of its own and turning itself into a botanical bully which now rampages through the crop. It is a lesson well learnt. GM is not a substitute for common sense, and the technology shouldn’t be over-used.
The remedy carries yet another echo of Turnip Townshend — rotating different herbicide-resistant crops so there is no chance for resistance to build up in weeds.
There are plenty of other reasons to welcome GM as a green option. Traditional farmers plough to reduce weeds, then harrow to produce a tilth through which weedkiller can penetrate before crops are sown. Fields growing herbicide-tolerant GM crops are sprayed after the plants emerge, so there is no need to plough. As ploughing releases carbon dioxide, this greatly reduces the carbon footprint. By not ploughing you also lose less moisture, reduce soil erosion and retain all the earthworms. And of course you burn less fuel. If you tot all this up, you hit some very big numbers indeed. The agricultural and food consultants PG Economics have calculated that biotech crops in 2007 saved 14.2 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere — the annual output of 6.3m cars. (The fact that the work was sponsored by Monsanto does not disqualify it as peer-reviewed research.)
In a long chapter of ironies, perhaps the greatest is the contrast with climate science. In the climate debate, the green lobby relies on mainstream science to legitimise its cause. In the GM debate the science is repudiated. But while recent mishaps have served to tilt public opinion towards climate scepticism, with GM there are signs the balance at last is beginning to shift the other way. In a survey of public attitudes by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in September, only 2% of respondents spontaneously named GM as a “food issue of concern”. Even with prompting, the worry level went up only to 21%, way behind salt in food (42%), fat (41%) and sugar (40%).
There is still a long way to go. Despite the EC’s decision to admit the BASF potato, some member states — notably Italy and Austria — declared they would not grow it, and the French demanded more research. Surprising nobody, Friends of the Earth complained that the EC had “ignored public opinion and safety concerns to please the world’s biggest chemical company”. It remains difficult for the campaigners to allow that any decision favourable to GM could be innocent of corruption. In May, two members of a steering group set up by the FSA to lead public dialogue on GM resigned, accusing the FSA of a “dogmatically entrenched” pro-GM bias.
There is nothing new in distrust of difficult science. Think of the reaction to Edward Jenner when he said pus from a cowpox pustule would preserve humans from smallpox; or to the claim that boiling and cooling milk would eradicate tuberculosis. The ills to be eradicated now are climate change and hunger. GM is not a magic bullet that will cure them on its own, but it offers more than we can afford to ignore. In time, it must happen. Europe will catch up with the rest of the world and the future will have its say.