23-12-2010 | You could be forgiven for thinking that Genetically Modified (GM) foods are firmly off the menu. But with examples including the US Food and Drug Administration's current consideration of whether AquAdvantage - a giant GM Salmon - is fit for human consumption, GM foods are back on the agenda and could be arriving on a plate near you soon.
Political hot potato
In March the European Commission approved the Amflora potato for commercial cultivation. But this is no humble spud. Owned and developed by BAFS, the world's leading chemical company, Amflora is a genetically modified starch potato developed specifically for use in industrial applications such as paper manufacturing.
"Amflora will strengthen the international position of the European potato starch industry," said Peter Eckes, president of BASF Plant Science.
Good news, apparently, for Europe's potato starch industry. But at what cost to the rest of us? EU member states including Italy and Austria and anti-GM campaigners have expressed concern about the presence of an antibiotic resistant marker gene in Amflora. If this gene was to find its way into the general environment it could have serious implications for human and animal health, blunting the effectiveness of life-saving medicines. Consumers who had their confidence shaken by the food crises of the 1990s may remember that the pursuit of increased productivity at the sake of common sense - such as feeding the remains of sheep and cattle to other cattle; the cause of BSE - can have unexpected and very unpleasant consequences.
Marco Contiero, an EU Policy Director for Greenpeace in Brussels, questions exactly who gains from this ruling: "Is the potato worth the risk? With non-GM varieties serving the same purpose just as well, the obvious answer is 'No'. Why, then, has Amflora been created? To benefit the biotech industry, rather than consumers and farmers."
Thin end of the wedge?
While the potato is not itself intended for human consumption, it could herald the arrival of a wave of GM cultivation into Europe's fields and onto our dinner tables. Amflora is the first GM crop to be authorised by the EU since 1998, marking the end of a 12 year moratorium when applications have bounced back and forth between law-making institutions. In July the EC proposed changes to how GM food and organisms are regulated, giving member states the right to ban cultivation at a national level, but also opening the door for pro- GM states to introduce the commercial cultivation of GM crops.
In parallel with our commitment to organic farming, Triodos is resolutely anti-GM; and our position is based on far more than a gut feeling. "While, clearly, the principles of organics and GM don't mix, sadly we can't say the same of the crops," says Ian Price, senior manager of our food, farming and trade team. "One major concern is the risk of cross contamination; either accidental or by gene-flow (the transfer of genetically modified genes to non-GM crops). As the scale of GM cultivation increases, so does the risk of contamination of organic crops. Bad news for organic farmers and anyone who wants a GM-free diet."
Far from luddite rhetoric, there are numerous examples of where contamination has already occurred. For instance while under experimentation at Louisiana state university, Bayer Cropscience's LibertyLink GM rice recently escaped, cross-contaminating conventional crops in four neighbouring states.
Food for thought
GM is hard to swallow in economic terms too; not least because of the corporate might behind the technology. Proponents of GM argue that high yielding and drought resistant crop varieties could help end hunger and famine. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of GM crops are developed for commercial rather than altruistic reasons. Monsanto's GM 'Roundup Ready' (RR) soy, for example, is engineered to be resistant to the company's Roundup herbicide, allowing the field to be sprayed with its active ingredient, glyphosate, killing all plant life except the crop.
The biotech industry claims that glyphosate is safe for people and breaks down rapidly. But scientific research published by Germany's GLS Bank and anti-GM campaigners ARGE Gentechnik-frei challenges this, revealing serious health and environmental impacts. These include an explosion of glyphosate-resistant weeds, or 'superweeds', forcing farmers "onto a chemical treadmill of using more and increasingly toxic herbicides". To make matters worse, GM RR soy has not lived up to industry claims, with studies showing that GM RR soy consistently delivers low yields. The final blow is huge inflation in the cost of GM RR soy seeds, which increased by as much as 230% between 2000 and 2009. But because of the levels of herbicide in the soil, farmers are left with little choice but to continue growing the variety.
According to Canada's ETC Group, the top 10 seed corporations already control 57% of commercial seed sales. It's hard to imagine how such limited global ownership of a resource as fundamental as seed can be a good thing. "Experience has shown that the concentration of power in few, profit-motivated hands often ends up at the expense of many. Recognise any parallels with the financial crisis?" comments Ian Price.
A fundamental change in the way we farm is needed to tackle climate change and ensure food security for a growing global population. But GM is not the answer. In 2008 an international panel of over 400 agricultural scientists concluded that expensive, short-term technical fixes including GM crops are unlikely to address the complex challenges of poverty and climate change. Instead, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report highlighted the need to support sustainable farming practices. And in June, UN expert Olivier De Schutter urged the international community to re-think agricultural policies, saying "governments and international agencies urgently need to boost ecological farming techniques to increase food production and save the climate."
We believe sustainable farming can provide solutions to some of the world's most pressing environmental and social problems, without the risks of GM or the biotech industry profiting at the expense of farmers. That's why Triodos actively supports the organic industry, financing over 250 organic food and farming businesses in the UK and more than 1,200 internationally. Individuals too can act against GM and help secure a better future for farming. Choose organic and sustainable food and keep informed - look to organisations like the Soil Association, the Organic Research Centre and GM Freeze for information on the latest developments. Together we need to take a stand against GM foods, or risk its potentially unsavoury consequences.
Will Ferguson, Triodos Bank