Debate: “Farmers should have the choice to grow and consumers the choice to eat GM foods”

Presentation at the John Innes Centre to the motion “Farmers should have the choice to grow and consumers the choice to eat GM foods

It’s been a number of years since I debated the issue of choice.

The last time was in the USA at the University of Wisconsin and its worth remembering that consumers in the US still don’t have the information about the GM contents of the food they are purchasing in order to make an informed buying decision.

That was the position here in the UK when GM crops were first brought forward for evaluation and sale. At the time the British government was denying consumers the labelling information needed to make an informed choice. That situation changed dramatically after the supermarkets sided with their customers and labelled foods containing GM ingredients with the result that today there are only a couple of products containing GM ingredients in our supermarkets

And choice has been an issue for farmers as well.

Initially farmers like myself who expressed concerns were told that GM is a ‘done deal’ and that the introduction of GM crops is inevitable. GM will be licensed whether farmers like it or not. Not much choice there!

I responded in a manner that I believed necessary to defend my farm, my livelihood and my family from the negative impact of the trialling and growing of GM crops.

This led me to join the board of GM Freeze an organisation that campaigns for a moratorium on the growing and consumption of GM crops. Its important to stress that GM Freeze campaigns for a moratorium and not an outright ban; and that one of the main objectives of GM Freeze is to challenge the erosion of farmer and consumer choice by the introduction of GM crops.

GM Freeze see this erosion of farmer choice occurring in four main ways:

1.Research.

Most relevant to the audience here at the JIC we see research limiting choice through the failure of research to address all the potential responses to a given problem – biotech, convention breeding, cultural and mechanical.

So for instance the focus of research on developing a GM blight resistant potato here at the JIC ignores the Sarpo conventionally breed potatoes that are blight tolerant and are already on the national seed list. Critics of the Sarpo potatoes highlight concerns about the cooking and eating qualities of these potatoes – but isn’t that a problem that could be easily addressed by targeted R&D?

We also see research funding, expertise and time wasted in trying to find biotech solutions to the symptoms of the underlying problem and not targetting the core problem itself.

For example the development of the purple tomato to address health problems that could and should be addressed by the promotion of a healthy diet that includes other purple fruits and berries such as blueberries or conventionally bred purple tomatoes.

2. Control of the seed industry.

Farmer choice is being limited by the control of the seed industry by biotech companies. As demonstrated by the interviews in the Farmer to Farmer video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEX654gN3c4 farmers in the USA are finding that nonGM seeds are not available and that research onto nonGM varieties is non-existent.

This control is highlighted by the introduction of the Monsanto Roundup Ready to Yield soya (RR2Y). Although the yield increase has been developed using nonGM plant breeding techniques, the yield enhanced seed is only available in the GM herbicide tolerant form and not in the conventional form thus denying conventional and organic farmers the yield benefit.

3. Contamination

Contamination of seed and growing crops is making it difficult for farmers to offer grow nonGM crops – especially free pollinating crops like OSR (canola).

There are many examples of GM traits contaminating the food chain.

Some, like the LL 601 rice incident where US rice was contaminated by a trait that was only grow in scientific field trials and was not licensed to enter the food chain costing Bayer a reported $1 billion in damages and some, like GM canola, where the licensed traits cannot be contained in the farmed environment.

Within two years of introducing GM canola into Canada some 12 years ago it had become impossible for organic growers to supply the lucrative market for organic canola oil and soon after it became impossible for conventional growers to supply nonGM canola loosing access to the lucrative EU markets.

And amazingly, after the problems in Canada, W. Australia decided to introduce GM canola two years ago. Within the first year organic growers were losing their accreditation because of pollen contamination and, following an accidental spill from a truck hauling GM canola down the highway, a large area has been contaminated with GM seed thus depriving a huge number of farmers the choice to grow and market non-GM varieties.

4. Liability and prosecution

Farmers live in fear of being prosecuted if GM seeds and plants are found on their land – wherever those seeds have come from. There have been some high profile cases where farmers have risked everything to defend themselves against the might of the seed companies but there have been many, many more farmers who have settled for an industry imposed fine rather than risk a long expensive legal battle – even when they do not believe that they are culpable.

Today in the UK, some 15 years after the introduction of GM crops was first proposed, there is still no clear legislation that defines who is liable if and when the food chain is contaminated – this is an unacceptable situation that has been allowed to continue by our government and farming leaders.

Talking to farmers in the US, it’s hardly surprising that many see the growing of GM varieties as the best way to avoid any chance of costly prosecution.

This is why I argue that GM does not offer greater choice but does in fact limit choice.

It’s through these four mechanisms that GM reduces farmers choice to grow the crops of their choice – and, through limiting farmer choice, consumer choice is also limited because consumers can’t choose to purchase foods that farmers are denied the choice to grow.

I want to finish my presentation but turning tonight’s motion, “farmers should have the choice to grow and consumers the choice to eat GM foods”, around and asking another more relevant question:

“Can biotechnology deliver real choice to farmers and consumers, guaranteeing farmers the right to grow the seeds of their choice free from the fear of contamination and prosecution, and guaranteeing consumers to right to purchase the foods of their choice?”

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