A decade on: is GM winning hearts and minds?

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Genetically modified food, European union

It is ten years since the first large-scale planting of genetically
modified (GM) crops. Food Navigator looks at both sides of
the argument to assess the future of the technology and its
implications for the European food industry.

The argument for genetically modified crops

Advocates such as the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) argue that the benefits of the technology to the food industry have simply become irresistible.

More and more farmers are planting GM crops, while hostile regulators such as those in the EU are softening up to the technology.

Farmer demand has driven annual double-digit increases in biotech crop adoption since the crops were first commercialised a decade ago, with four new countries and a quarter million more farmers planting biotech crops last year.

The 8.5 million farmers planting biotech crops in 2005 also marked a significant milestone as the 1 billionth cumulative acre, or 400 millionth hectare, was planted.

"Farmers from the United States to Iran, and five EU countries demonstrate a trust and confidence in biotech crops, as indicated by the unprecedented high adoption rate of these crops,"​ said ISAAA chairman Clive James.

Certainly, 2005 saw Iran growing its first crop of biotech rice, while the Czech Republic planted Bt maize for the first time, bringing the total number of EU countries growing biotech crops to five with Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic being joined by France and Portugal.

This, says the ISAAA, could signal an important trend in the EU. Last week, the EU ordered Greece to lift its ban on a GM seed manufactured by Monsanto, and also granted European approval for three Monsanto GM maize types.

Ultimately, claim supporters, GM crops have proved their effectiveness in the space of a decade despite fierce opposition. Opinions are beginning to change. Recent European Commission decisions have tended to back GM use, and consumers are being won over by scientific as well as economic argument.

"I am cautiously optimistic the stellar growth experienced during the first decade of commercialisation will not only continue, but will be surpassed in the second decade,"​ said James.

"The number of countries and farmers growing biotech crops is expected to grow, particularly in developing countries, while second-generation input and output traits are expected to become available."

The argument against genetically modified crops

This of course is not a view shared by many environmentalists and food activists. European consumer opinion is still unequivocally anti-GM, and retailers have tended to respond by advertising their products as 'non-GM', creating an impression that this is a health and safety as well as an environmental issue.

Pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth have marked the ten year anniversary of GM crops by arguing that no benefits to consumers or the environment have materialised.

"Contrary to the promises made by the biotech industry, the reality of the last ten years shows that the safety of GM crops cannot be ensured and that these crops are neither cheaper nor better quality,"​ said Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth (FoE) Nigeria.

A new FoE report argues that contrary to what the ISAAA might say, GM crops are not 'green'. According to the pressure group, Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans, the most extensively grown GM crop today, has led to an increase in herbicide use.

It claims that independent reports from the US show that since 1996, GM corn, soybean and cotton have led to an increase in pesticide use of 55 million kilos. The intensive cultivation of soybeans in South America is fostering deforestation, and has been associated with a decline in soil fertility and soil erosion.

In addition, the report argues that GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty. Most GM crops commercialised so far are destined for animal feed, not for food, and none have been introduced to address hunger and poverty issues.

And what's more, the biotech industry has failed to introduce the promised 'new generation' of GM crops with consumer benefits.

"After 30 years of research, only two modifications have made it to the marketplace on any scale: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance,"​ said FoE. "The biotech industry is still mostly focusing on the traits, crops and applications that it did in the 1990s, and animal feed is the exclusive or primary intended use of most new-generation GM crops."

…and the future?

European consumers undoubtedly still hold strong reservations over the proliferation of GM crops. Member States such as Luxembourg, Greece and Austria consistently vote against GMO approvals and will not be happy with the recent EC announcement that Greece must lift its ban on Monsanto's MON 810.

In contrast to the US, pressure groups have successfully convinced the public that the powerful biotech sector is somehow trying to hoodwink them into consuming risky foods. But the fact remains that firm proof that GM foods could harm human health is absent.

This has diluted the argument against GM crops. If debate continues to focus on whether GM has health and safety implications, then the biotech industry will likely win over European regulators, as it is already doing.

But if the debate focuses fully on whether GM has had a negative environmental impact, as the FoE suggests, then the industry could have a real fight on its hands.

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