July 22, 2008

‘Embrace GM or Be Left Behind’ ; Don’t Be Prejudiced Against Technology, Says Professor

By Rhodri Clark

WALES was urged yesterday to put aside its "prejudice" against genetically modified food as world food and fuel prices increase.

A respected academic warned at the Royal Welsh Show that farmers would be disadvantaged if Wales did not embrace GM technology.

But opponents claimed GM crops would not necessarily be cheaper or address farming's main challenge - reducing energy consumption.

Professor Wynne Jones, of Harper Adams University College, Shropshire, praised the Welsh Assembly Government for investing in the new Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth.

He also acknowledged widespread consumer resistance in Europe to GM food, but said the public needed to be educated about the technology.

"We must show leadership, and we must encourage young people to take up science," he said. "It's up to us as educationalists and scientists to inform the public and have a debate based on fact and not heated emotions.

"When you look at the difficulty of getting GM-free food proteins, particularly for pig and poultry meat, you can see that there are problems in our present anti-GM position. Everybody is embracing GM. We need to push more science and more investment in science.

"Our general anti-science approach in the UK means that companies are investing in places like Argentina and the Ukraine rather than our own country.

"The public is generally prejudiced against GM technology, and the stand taken by the Welsh Assembly Government feeds that prejudice.

"But from 10 to 15 years onwards, biotechnology is going to be the biggest industry. We will be using crops for medicines, fuel and food.

"The use of GM crops worldwide and the availability of GM foodstuffs worldwide will make it difficult for any country to remain competitive if it has not been able to adopt the latest technology."

Meurig Raymond, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, said non-GM soya already commanded a premium of pounds 60 a ton.

"It's anti-competitive for a livestock farming country like ours to be GM-free," he said. "Scientists, politicians and retailers ought to be driving this debate, but retailers in particular don't want to know. As we become less self-sufficient in food, there will be more GM material in imported food anyway."

GM crops have been trialled in Wales, but only on a small scale. In 2000 Flintshire farmer John Cottle was allowed to plant GM maize, despite an Assembly vote banning GM crops, because officials in London thought his farm was in England. The crop was damaged by protesters.

The Soil Association, which promotes organic farming, said the public was well-informed about GM food.

"There's been a more sophisticated debate in the UK than in any other country in the world, and when the people have had the information they've decided: 'No'," said director Patrick Holden, who farms near Lampeter.

"I've got a huge respect for Wynne but I think on this he's wrong. At the moment the farming system uses 10 calories of fossil- fuel energy to produce one calorie of fuel. That's wholly unsustainable.

"To my knowledge, there isn't a single example of a GM crop which is being commercially grown which delivers any public benefit.

"The benefits are all to do with enhanced sales of seeds and herbicides. The GM agenda is driven by vested interests."

"Small is beautiful, local is beautiful, Welsh people eating Welsh produce is beautiful. That's the future."

Gordon James, of Friends of the Earth Cymru, questioned whether GM food would be cheaper than non-GM.

"People are concerned about the quality of the food they eat, and what they're focusing on in Wales is good-quality natural food. We could lose that image by embracing GM and it would clash with the Assembly's sustainable development brief.

"I think we'll see much more emphasis on local food, and people growing their own in gardens and allotments."

But potato grower Walter Simon, who farms near Pembroke, said GM foods had not damaged California's reputation for high-quality food.

Welsh opposition to GM

March 1999: Two GM trials near Cardiff are announced but later abandoned after protests.

May 2000: Assembly votes unanimously for a GM-free Wales; GM crop is sown in Sealand, Flintshire, but later damaged.

October 2000: Assembly votes against GM seeds although the rest of the UK has voted in favour.

April 2001: Three test GM crops in Wales are licensed in Whitehall, one in Flintshire and two in Pembrokeshire.

May 2001: Pembrokeshire trials called off after protests; Assembly makes European law by insisting on separation between GM and other crops.

July 2001: More than 100 protesters damage the Flintshire GM maize crop.

March 2008: WAG proposes to make GM companies and farmers who plant GM crops legally liable for contamination or "genetic trespass".

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