• Kimberley Greed
  • 24 June 2013

GM: food for thought

Growing up in an agricultural family and having spent most of my teenage years working for one of the UK’s leading crop breeding companies, I have seen first-hand the problems that the agricultural sector is facing. In light of unpredictable weather, declining biodiversity, and fluctuating prices; the UK agricultural sector has held its own. Companies have worked endlessly to breed more successful yields of crops – and all without the use of GM (genetic modification).

In Europe, environmental law and policy is based on the precautionary principle – a principle that advocates that in the absence of 100% proof that something will not cause any harm to the environment, we act cautiously and avoid it (providing there is a substantial evidence base that harm is likely). This has formed the basis for the EU position of GM crops, which are banned throughout the entire union (with the exception of a single variety of maize grown in Spain) because the potential for harm could be significant and there are substantial unknowns which cannot be proven nor disproven scientifically.

However, recently the UK Environment Minister, Owen Paterson, has advocated a revolution for GM in the UK. He believes that we should be at the forefront of GM crop development as we were with selective breeding in the 1960s. He argues that we are being left behind by our trading partners – namely America – and that GM can help improve our farming practices by reducing the need for pesticides, fertilisers and water consumption.

So what is the problem? It all sounds highly beneficial, doesn’t it?

Well, the problem with GM crops is that once they become introduced into the wild, whether intentionally or unintentionally, there is no going back. We cannot reverse cross-breeding with natural varieties, so any adverse impacts will be permanent. GM crops could be responsible for significant effects on biodiversity; and by reducing biodiversity we would essentially be putting all of our eggs in one basket, leaving our major food supplies vulnerable to disease and pests.

So what effect does this actually have for businesses in the UK? Think about the food we eat every day. GM is not an issue relating to one sector, it affects us all – including companies and organisations that order in food. Crop diversity has the potential to play havoc with prices, but more significantly, we don’t actually know what effect a diminishing gene pool would have for the environment and our health.

This is a classic example where legislation has been put in place to protect what is most precious to us, and it’s important for short-termist policy makers to recognise this. The science and implications behind GM and other environmental issues is extremely complex, and we need to ask whether the economic benefits gained in the short term would outweigh the potential environmental and economic losses in the long term.

With this in mind, we should consider whether it’s right to meddle with something which could have such drastic impacts when, actually, it might not even lead to significant benefits anyway.

To read more on this news story, you can visit the Guardian at: