Organic certifiers do not allow genetically modified content to appear within organic food. Why is this? Should we allow genetically modified (GM) crops to be grown in the UK?
Here we summarise our key thoughts:
Most genetically modified crops are either herbicide-resistant and insecticide-producing (or both). The environmental effects of these two strands vary; the first form of plant (such as the ‘Round-up Ready’ Crops produced by Monsanto) are designed to withstand the spraying of chemical herbicides. In such cases, the use of chemical herbicides (glyphosate or glufosinate) is clearly encouraged. These substances have an obvious toxic effect on the ecosystem – damaging plant life, aquatic life, bird life and microorganisms in the soil. Furthermore, weeds eventually become resistant to herbicides, creating an increasing need for chemical sprays.
The second group – insecticide-producing crops – secrete toxins that are designed to kill pests. These toxins can be unintentionally harmful to other organisms directly involved with such crops – insects such as bees, lacewings, butterflies – with research yet to ascertain the level of damage to species within related food chains, and within the soil.
In 2015 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that glyphosate (the most widely used herbicide) is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. A year later, they changed their mind and suggested that it was in fact ‘unlikely’ that glyphosate in our diet was carcinogenic. Amidst all this uncertainty, a senior policy officer involved summed up the situation as ‘a very complex puzzle’, saying that the research project was ‘not necessarily complete yet’.
In the face of such uncertainty the right course must be to push for further research into the true, long lasting health effects of GM crops before we allow them onto our land and indeed onto our dinner tables. With links having been established between GM techniques and raised risk of allergic reactions, and a study finding that toxins produced by GM crops are able to pass into the foetus of an unborn baby, the need to exercise caution is surely obvious.
A moral responsibility to feed the world?
Many of the environmental and health concerns listed above are often disregarded in the face of our so-called moral responsibility for ever-greater yields to provide ever more food for a growing global population. The starting point here must be that there is enough food produced today to feed the world population with ease, yet we currently waste one third of all food for human consumption. That’s thirty percent of the world’s agricultural land that is used to produce food that is eventually wasted. Morally speaking it is food distribution, not yield, that is the most pressing issue. The UK government has approved plans to trial GM wheat varieties, hoping to improve yields, yet we are forecast to have a global surplus of wheat in 2017.
There can be no denying that the world food supply will eventually have to grow to accommodate an increasingly prosperous global population. However the ‘GM debate’ is often set out in far too generalised terms; our part in it must be framed within the context of British food and farming. It is for us to feed our own, first and foremost; we import 40 per cent of our food at present. It is then for us to export our skills and our learning to other countries so they too can become self-sufficient.
It is also worth examining whether the growth of GM usage will produce equitable outcomes for farmers in developing nations. In a GM paradigm, biotechnology corporations will control every step of the food chain. Power will continue to amass in the hands of a few, giant corporations rather than being spread across the many small scale farmers around the world. In light of recent mergers, 4 companies will now account for around 95% of the worlds genetically engineered crop acreage, 75% of global agrochemical sales, and 63% of global seed sales.
These corporations have patents on seed genetics and the processes used to create them. They have bought up seed merchants and seed breeding companies. They have engineered crop varieties that will not follow the natural process of producing seed that can be reliably retained for future use, and so ensure that the farmer must return to them each season to purchase new seeds (seed was once the common property of farmers). Their patented crops will not thrive without the help of the patented chemical sprays, that only they sell. Will farmers in the poorest nations be anything more than a freely exploited agent in a corporate-controlled, food production industry?