Matt Ridley: Eat Up Your GM Crops. They’re Good For You

  • Date: 23/06/14
  • Matt Ridley, The Times

Genetically modified foods are cheaper to grow, need fewer pesticides and can be enriched with anti-cancer agents

The news that Britain could soon grow genetically modified crops commercially is a victory for common sense over irrational opportunism, and also for the environment over pollution.

Under pressure from the European Union’s health and consumer commissioner, Tonio Borg, and Britain’s environment secretary, Owen Paterson, the EU is on the brink of ceding control of the issue to national governments. That suits countries such as France and Austria, who are implacably opposed to GM crops, and Britain, which is not.

It is now clear that the opposition to GM crops has been counter-productive for the environment as well as harmful to the economy and the consumer. It has left us more reliant on pesticides than other parts of the world. For instance, potatoes currently require spraying with fungicides up to 15 times a season. Each spraying costs money, burns diesel, compacts soil and kills innocent fungal bystanders. Breeding blight-resistant potatoes the old fashioned way has proved difficult. By the time it is achieved, the blight is already immune to the resistance.

However, doing it the GM way proved straightforward for the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, and promises stronger and longer resistance, because it is possible to introduce a cassette of several resistance genes. These come from wild plants in the same genus as the potato, which disposes of one source of opposition — that it’s an unnatural cross. The new GM variety probably could have been developed years earlier if the eco-vandals had not driven much of that kind of ground-breaking research abroad.

Incidentally, the very phrase “genetic modification” is getting harder to define. It used to mean bringing genes in from other species, but what about when genes are brought in from a species in the same genus (as in the potato example)? Or, as will increasingly be the case, when existing genes within the crop species are edited rather than replaced? And why do the complex regulations about GM not apply to plants whose genes have been deliberately but randomly modified by gamma rays, as has happened to many common “non-GM” and even organic varieties?

Remember, organic bean sprouts killed 51 people in one E coli outbreak in Germany in 2011. GM food has killed nobody. There’s now simply no way to argue with a straight face, after billions of GM meals have been eaten all round the world, that the technology is a threat to our health. The reverse is actually the case. [...]

In short, the new campaign is based on no new science suggesting environmental or health risks. It’s simply a sign of a movement addicted to scaremongering and in need of new funds. Fortunately it will not gain much traction. With 17 million farmers growing GM crops in 28 countries, on 12 per cent of the world’s arable land, this gene genie won’t go back in the bottle.

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