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Our View

To ensure adequate continued production of safe and nutritious crops, in a sustainable way with minimal energy and chemical inputs and low environmental cost, options should be considered, including GM and organic. However, it is important that there is an informed debate safeguarded by a sound scientific evidence-based approach to allow rational decisions to be made. GM crops can provide both benefits and pose new risks which must be balanced on a case-by-case basis. Rigorous scientific testing will ensure that the risks are minimized and rewards maximized. To judge the benefit claims of organic farming accurately, suggestions that it provides healthier food should be subject to more rigorous testing.

State of the debate

Introduction

The current “debate” surrounding GM and organic farming has become obscured by emotive ethical and commercial arguments. This has hindered open scientific discussion, leaving the evidence-based risks and rewards of each system poorly understood. Negative campaigns against GM foods have been particularly successful through developing such alarmist terminology as “frankenfoods” and “superweeds”.

GM crops

Organisms whose genetic material has been altered through modern DNA technology in a targeted way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination are considered genetically modified or transgenic. Genetic modification is only one of many so called “unnatural” technologies, such as radiation induced mutation and the use of bacteria to transplant genes, that have been successfully used over the past 50-100 years to produce today’s crop varieties.”

Supporters of GM crops argue that they provide the opportunity to produce crops that are resistant to disease and adverse weather conditions, that produce pharmaceutical products or that reduce impacts on the environment through reduced pesticide use and the introduction of no-till farming practices.

Opponents argue that GM crops could cause disease in humans or have unknown consequences. They argue that GM crops have not been adequately tested on humans, despite the fact that this is also the case with conventionally-bred foods. They are concerned that antibiotic-resistant genes, which acted as "markers" in some early GM crops, could spread to bacteria making them resistant to antibiotics. They also fear that genes from GM crops could transfer to other plants where they might have adverse effects. Some groups have stated that trials of GM crops are unacceptable. A minority have gone so far as to destroy scientific trials of GM crops.

The issues relating to GM crops are not unique and the testing of GM products for ecological and environmental risk can be compared to that of conventional crops. Globally, there have been tens of thousands of trials since 1986 and a huge number of market releases of GM crops such that since 1996, the major GM crops occupy over 150 million hectares annually and are grown by 5.5. Million farmers to date there have been no recorded cases of harmful environmental or health effects whatsoever of authorised GM crops and food products derived from them.

Organic farming

Organic farms do not use 'artificial' chemicals including pesticides and herbicides or, as far as animals are concerned, modern medical and chemical treatments, although antibiotics can be used as last resort to alleviate suffering.
Organisations promoting organic produce have claimed that organic food is healthier than conventionally produced food and better for the environment because it is free of man-made pesticides and chemicals. There is no scientific evidence for the former and only limited evidence in some situations for the latter.

However, organic farming allows the use of ‘natural’ toxic, persistent chemicals, such as copper sulphate and rotenone which are harmful to health. The UK Food Standards Agency headed by Sir John Krebs concludes that there is no evidence that organic food is healthier than conventionally grown produce.

Many scientists maintain that the organic movement follows ideological principles which are not supported by science. Indeed, Dr Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, has argued that if all farming were to be organic, productivity would be so low that almost all forests around the world would have to be destroyed to make way for agricultural land. If the whole world went organic, it could support only 3-4 billion people, with a high risk of pest and disease epidemics.

The marketing requirement that organic food be certified GM-free, combined with concerns about potential horizontal gene flow between GM and organic crops, has caused the industrialised organic movement to adopt a high profile position against the introduction of GM crops.

Policy

An EU moratorium on the introduction of GM crops has effectively stalled their introduction in Europe since 1998.

Current EU rules will require any food produ with more than 0.9% GM ingredients to be labelled. This has prevented GM food products entering the EU freely and is a bone of contention between the EU and US. The US is considering bringing a World Trade Organisation case against the EU on the grounds that this labelling legislation is "more trade restrictive than necessary".

In order to consult the public in the UK, the government recently launched a national debate on GM crops. The debate has so far done little to engage the public, leaving the impression that most people either do not understand or really care about the issue of GM crops sufficiently; or that earlier propaganda and fear-campaigns have led to entrenched positions or media fatigue.

 
   
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