January 12, 2010

Is the UK Abandoning the Precautionary Principle on Genetically Modified (GM) Crops?

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

The latest posting by FoodforeThought summarizes recent debate in the United Kingdom about the role of genetically modified (GM) crops in planning for future food security. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report, Food 2030 was released at the Oxford Farming Conference. The comments below by William Surman captured the mood of sustainable agriculture supporters, a group critical of industrial agriculture in the U.K. who held a concurrent meeting called the Oxford Real Farming Conference:

“The government is ‘dangerously deluded’ if it believes genetically modified crops will solve the world’s food security issues,” members of the breakaway Oxford Real Farming Conference warned. Professor John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientist, told the Prime Minister on Wednesday, January 8, that genetic technology would help deliver ‘a new and greener food revolution’ for Britain.

But Colin Tudge, a science writer and organiser of the rival farm conference, which took place alongside the Oxford Farming Conference, said farmers did not need ‘novel and untried’ technology. Instead he said the Government must ‘free farmers from the shackles of economic dogma’.

‘For decades politicians have starved agriculture of resources on the mistaken notion that the market would deliver a secure food supply. As a result, tens of thousands of farmers have gone to the wall and Britain has been robbed of the skills it needs to feed the people.

The Government are desperately pinning their hopes on untried GM technology to save us but scientists who truly understand agriculture know that this can’t solve our food supply problems.
Our prime objective must be feeding people, not making profits for large business corporations as now,’ he said.

Professor Martin Wolfe, director of the organic research centre at Elm Farm, added there were many unanswered questions about GM crops. The only realistic way to maximise productivity, he said, was through polycultures- using multiple crops and animals in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems. ‘The first priority for research and development should be for ecological agriculture,’ he said.’

I am sure that Professor Wolfe would regard Monsanto’s 95 percent market share of the soybean seed market in the U.S. with its Roundup Ready single genomic variety of soybeans as the anathema of ecological agriculture. Monocropping rather than polyculture cropping creates its own vulnerability for crop failure from new pests. The use of a single genomic cultivar within the monocropping system compounds this problem. And the final threat to a sustainable food system is the monopoly control of the seed market for an important commodity crop. Finally, unanswered questions about the safety of GMOs – to human health and to the ecosystem – must be addressed through careful scientific study with results published in peer reviewed journals. These factors should be carefully examined in any reform of the U.S. food system.

­- Robert S. Lawrence

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