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Crop biotechnology still attracts opposition

Many farmers seem to like GM crops. Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (www.isaaa.org), 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops, over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected: agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the last.

But it continues to have its vocal critics, with Greenpeace still prominent among them. On 14 July, a GM wheat trial (modified to have a lower glycaemic index and a higher fibre content) run by CSIRO in Ginninderra near Canberra, was destroyed by a group of protestors using strimmers (see the Canberra Times – GM crop destroyed). The finely-tuned Greenpeace propaganda machine was once again organised to gain maximum impact. Both the women who destroyed the crop wore full protective clothing including gloves, helmets and face masks, of the sort used when handling hazardous material. Just one problem: they were dealing with a perfectly harmless plot of young wheat plants, which represented no risk to them whatsoever. That they were grown under cover was merely part of the very cautious approach taken to the development and trialling of GM crops.

The newspaper report continues “Greenpeace have confirmed at least two women scaled the fence, including one mother, Heather McCabe, who is concerned about her family's health. ‘This GM wheat should never have left the lab,’ said Ms McCabe. ‘I'm sick of being treated like a dumb Mum who doesn’t understand the science. As far as I’m concerned, my family's health is too important. GM wheat is not safe, and if the Government can't protect the safety of my family, then I will...‘We had no choice but to take action to bring an end to this experiment,’ said Greenpeace Food campaigner Laura Kelly in a release this morning. ’This is about the protection of our health, the protection of our environment and the protection of our daily bread.’ ”

All scary stuff, but with no basis in fact. And they seem to be swimming against the tide. The Canberra Times ran an opinion survey on the same page and, of 1,354 respondents, 78.7% were opposed, 9% unsure and just 12.3% supportive of this action. But this is in a country where some GM crops are already grown and the government has generally taken a fairly rational approach to approvals. What about Europe, where opposition has been at its strongest?

On 9 July, a group of masked activists got two for the price of one: they destroyed a plot of wheat modified to resist fungal diseases and a field of potatoes engineered to produce an amino acid polymer (cyanophycin) which could be used to make plastics on the same site near Rostock (see the story reported in Science - Anti-GM Attack Destroys German Test Plots). In this case, the vandals remained anonymous and were obviously quite determined; they were reported to have overpowered a security guard to gain access.

On 11 July, a similar attack occurred further south, near Magdeburg. A larger group of a dozen activists destroyed fields of potatoes, wheat and maize at a demonstration garden, after threatening guards with a pepper spray and bats (Activists raid GM crop sites in Germany). But, despite condemnation from all mainstream political parties except the Greens, there is likely to be less public outrage in Germany, a country where many people are deeply suspicious of crop biotechnology. Such attacks are similar to those undertaken by the ‘volunteer reapers’ in France, with José Bové (‘farmer’ and MEP) prominent among them. And not only France; in May a field of GM potatoes was destroyed in Belgium, near Ghent, celebrated by Indymedia as 400 peasants, clowns and reapers liberate Belgian GM potato field.

This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops – without taking away the critical element of choice – would be unlikely to cause a real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals.

In an attempt to break the current logjam, the European Parliament has, somewhat counter-intuitively, just voted to allow Member States to ban cultivation of approved GM crops on their soil for a whole range of reasons which “may be based on grounds relating to environmental or other legitimate factors such as socio-economic impacts” and are not scientific or safety issues (see GM crops: EU parliament backs national bans).

The perhaps somewhat naive idea is that countries which currently routinely vote against GM crop approvals would go with the EFSA recommendation if they knew they could still ban their use on their own soil. Many MEPs, on the other hand, are more likely to see this as a victory for a more general anti-GM stance. Up till now, a number of countries have put in place national bans of doubtful legality, and the latest vote would make outright bans easier. France, for example, to the consternation of quite a number of its farmers, slapped a ban on cultivation of GM maize in February 2008, after farmers north of the Pyrenees had begun to follow the example of those in Spain, and seemed set to expand cultivation further. But a recent EU court opinion suggests that this was actually an illegal act (see EU court deals blow to French-led anti-GM crops lobby).

How this situation will evolve is anyone’s guess, but Europe cannot pretend to be a GM-free island. The livestock industry relies heavily on imports of GM soy to provide affordable meat, significant quantities of GM maize are grown in Spain, and the products of GM micro-organisms are widely used in food processing. Now that the question of food security and affordability has finally come back to the top of the agenda, there should be a greater sense of realism among politicians that a utopian vision of localised organic farming is a mirage except for a privileged few who can afford to indulge themselves.

Now is surely the time for our elected representatives to bite the bullet, resist the strident calls of the anti-biotech lobby and make rational decisions for benefit of society, farmers and the international community. If not, then they simply accelerate Europe’s marginalisation in the world. 

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