“We pretend that the debate about genetically modified crops is a debate about science when the reality is actually that the science is very clear. It is really a debate about values. About people [with] strongly held personal opinions and beliefs [who] believe that there is something wrong in humans modifying nature.” This is one of the more insightful statements I have seen in the raging GMO debate. What is even more interesting is that it was made by a top official in the UK where people are regularly vilified, harassed, and sometimes even physically attacked for speaking up for biotechnology. Yet, that is just what Sir Mark Walport, the UK Chief Scientist said. He recently told MPs on the Science and Technology committee that he EU’s de facto ban on genetically modified (GM) crops may have caused more harm than good, “The consequence of inactions are that we are potentially, particularly in Europe, denying access to technologies that actually will potentially help feed people in ways that damage the environment less.”
The debate over biotechnology in the UK and the rest of the EU has been raging a lot longer and been a lot louder than here in the US. The cultivation of most GM crops are banned in the EU, but a growing number of EU scientists are beginning to condemn the politicians for adopting policy that has no basis in scientific fact. Scientists, including Walport and the EU chief scientist Anne Glover, say GM is not inherently dangerous and essentially no different than the selective breeding that humans have engaged in for millennia and that each crop should be assessed on its own merits. “It makes more sense to assess crops based on their individual characteristics and the farming practices that accompany them, rather than the method by which they were produced,” says Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology.
The UK, which is no longer food self sufficient, is pushing back against the EU ban on GM crops. Walport told the committee that the UK’s advocacy for GM crops in the face of EU opposition was scientifically justified. “I do consider that to be an evidence-based policy indeed. The science is very clear and I’m happy that the government has taken on board the science.” A study published in the journal PLOS One this year found “on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.”
But, as was stated at the outset, there is no debate about the science. Both in the EU and the US, the real heart of the GMO debate is over what kind of agriculture people want. Marco Contiero, Greenpeace’s EU policy director on agriculture, says “The benefits attributed to GM can only be seen as benefits if you accept a form of agriculture dominated by five monolithic corporations and vast fields of single crops with a massive ecological footprint.”
In short: people want a 21st century food supply produced with 19th century agriculture.
More and more, US biotechnology advocates are beginning to reframe the argument in terms of benefits to the consumer, the environment, and the future of our food supply. Some are even advocating that GM farming and non-GM farming can coexist. Unfortunately, there are some groups who do not really want a resolution of the debate because the controversy generates a good deal of money for their organizations.
While the debate rages on, other forces are at work that may ultimately determine the future for biotechnology. Increasing world food demand and climate change that may shift weather patterns will demand the adoption of GM crops in most agricultural regions of the world. But here, too, consumers and political leaders must be made aware of the benefits instead of the science. Progress on the GM debate will only be made when all sides start focusing on the costs and benefits of the technology and on what our agricultural system should be.
By Gary Truitt