GM Crops: Making a bad situation worse (Part 2)

In a three part series, Peter Melchett looks at the decline of the GM industry. Part two looks at GM’s fate post-Brexit and the rise of non-GM innovative technology:


GM animal feed the next to go

The only significant market for the GM crops which are grown around the world, apart from cotton, has been animal feed. GM soya from North and Latin America, and GM maize, are fed to chickens, pigs, dairy cows, and mainly in the Americas, beef cattle, in huge quantities. Europe imports large quantities of GM soya for use as animal feed, and has done so for nearly 20 years. But this is changing.

For the first time for many years, the amount of non-GM soya being imported into the European Union is growing, because major French and German supermarket chains are dropping GM animal feed. The second largest supermarket chain in the world, Carrefour, is labelling products like farmed salmon, dairy and meat, as coming from animals fed on non-GM food (in the UK and elsewhere, meat and dairy products are not labelled if they come from animals fed on GM feed).

Things are moving more slowly in the UK, but Waitrose has refused to join supermarkets like Tesco, Sainsbury's, ASDA and Morrisons, in allowing poultry to be fed on GM feed. There seems little doubt that this last major market for GM crops from the Americas is already contracting, and may in future rely mainly on exports to China.

However, European countries are not the only ones with concerns about GM – there are now more countries in the world that have decided to ban growing GM crops than allow them. Countries as far apart as Russia, China India, and a number of African countries have policies in place which do not allow the growing of GM food crops, even if GM crops are grown for animal feed or fibre.


The pro-GM campaign’s uncanny ability to ignore facts (including new and better technologies)

The market, not the views of politicians, GM companies and pro-GM scientists, have always decided the fate of GM crops and food, and that looks likely to continue. Despite the dramatic changes taking place in the marketplace and on farms in North America, India and elsewhere, with GM disasters unfolding one after another, in England there has been no let-up in the constant stream of GM propaganda from pro-GM campaigners, from the Royal Society to the English government.

Many of them may now be hoping, in vain, that Brexit will allow the English government to impose GM on people (Scotland and Wales will remain GM-free). There is no doubt that these people, or most of them, genuinely believe that the only way of solving our problems are technical fixes, to be imposed on an ignorant public, and they see GM as a prime example of that. The fact that it is clearly incapable of fixing the multiple challenges facing agriculture in regions like Europe and the Americas, to say nothing of developing countries, simply passes them by.

There is no way that GM crops can help restore our damaged and still declining farmland wildlife (indeed the scientific evidence is clear that they will make matters worse), and there is no evidence of any GM crop helping to reduce farming’s large greenhouse gas emissions by the 80% required (indeed, GM crops need just as much manufactured Nitrogen fertiliser, a key cause of greenhouse gas emissions, as non-GM crops). Genetically engineered animals were part of the original vision – engineered to produce more and apparently to enjoy living in small concrete enclosures, but public revulsion was such that this bit of the vision has been quietly shelved (apart from the development of giant GM salmon in the USA).

Perhaps the most damaging development for supporters of GM crops has been to see the technology overtaken by superior breeding techniques, in particular Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), which uses our new knowledge of the genome greatly to accelerate normal crop breeding. 

MAS has proved fast and reliable, and almost all the crops with new traits like drought or disease resistance in use around the world, particularly in developing countries, have been developed in this way, not through GM.  So embarrassing has this become that GM campaigners have started talk about ‘biotechnology’ not ‘GM’ in the hope that no one will notice that the crops they are praising have been produced by normal crop breeding informed by modern science, and have nothing to do with engineering new genes into a crop’s DNA, with all the associated risks that brings, whether through genetic modification or a more recent version of GM, gene editing. 

So if GM and the farming systems it is an integral part of are not the future – what is?  I will cover that in Part 3.

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