The GM Crops Question
The price of bread was first. Then two weeks ago it was pork. Staples of Britain’s shopping baskets are rocketing in price, fuelled by a near-Biblical combination of drought, flood, pests, blight and – perhaps most malevolent of all – market forces.
Food prices have already risen by 30 per cent in the last four years and in 2013 it is predicted they will hit a crippling record high. Population pressures are increasing stress on food supply globally, and a world food crisis is not just imminent: it’s here.
With weather extremes predicted to increase in coming decades, politicians are increasingly turning to science for answers. While Friends of the Earth and other environmental lobbyists continue a strident anti-GM stance, recently appointed special adviser to the European Commission, Professor Anne Glover, has called for “better debate around GM, based on evidence and not emotion”.
Farmer Bob Fiddaman has been in the vanguard of GM trials, planting his first crops in 1999 and participating in a four-year trial growing seven crops, including oilseed rape.
“My view has always been that it is not a final answer, it is just another tool that will allow breeders to pick out certain characteristics and transfer them to species of plant that we as farmers want to grow, because it has other characteristics including yield and quality,” he says.
“Now that we’ve broken down plant genomes, we can more rapidly look for things that will be beneficial, whether it’s drought-tolerant, saline-tolerant, whether we can add vitamins, such as in golden rice, which has Vitamin A added.”
But he fears that Europe is being left behind other parts of the world.
“In Australia they are developing plants that are drought-tolerant, because that is a major problem. South America and Argentina GM research is far ahead and they can produce food cheaper and in volumes that the world needs. They won’t go back to old technology.
"If we carry on as we have in Europe, saying we don’t need [GM crops] we will dig ourselves into a hole, and this year’s harvest has begun to show that. We have had real problems. Prices are high enough now, but they will go up because of the shortage of quality wheat.”
Fiddaman is optimistic that attitudes towards genetically modified food are starting to change as the realities of failing crops and rising prices begin to bite. Pointing out that all crops have been modified throughout history, he believes both farmers and the public need to trust the technology.
“I think there is now an indication of a change of mood in the UK. I am aware that Scottish and Welsh governments are adamantly against GM research, but there are strong results from the latest GM potatoes being trialled in the UK and Ireland, making them resistant to blight, which is a major problem in Wales. It is something that they should be thinking about adopting.
“I certainly hope that we are slowly getting through those fears now because we are starting to see real problems in providing enough food of value that the population can afford.”
Fiddaman has recently worked with Rothamsted Research, which is leading studies into GM technology, on projects including bumblebee and aphid populations.
“Scientists have wanted to be more open and plain about the work they are doing, but they have had to be careful about what they’ve said. I think the general public is starting to get more confident, now that the scientists are being more open. [Rothamsted] are independent and we know that they are not doing it for the money, they are doing it for the science.”