By David Hill: Bradenham, Norfolk, United Kingdom
There will be plenty of observers of the forthcoming EU/USA trade talks who will speculate as to the outcome with the GM factor being of major importance.
Many will feel that there is such a difference in the level of acceptance of new technology with Europe still finding it difficult to accept. You have to understand the level of ‘green politics’ in Europe where, it is argued, the ‘environment’ with use of GM would be damaged.
I have been a supporter of biotech for a long time, originally a lonely position! However, we are beginning to see some growing support, especially amongst farmers. A recent poll, in the farming press, gave a 61% result of people in favor of GM. Spain is growing 330,000 acres of biotech maize this season.
For a number of years, however, we’ve suffered from a de facto moratorium on biotech farming. The situation has been so bleak that seed companies have quit pursuing regulatory approvals for cultivation. Their plants may be the safe products of a proven technology, but they can’t overcome fierce prejudices driven by politics and grounded in scientific illiteracy.
In his new book "Something to Chew On," Irish food expert Mike Gibney explains the problem. "So great is the level of confusion" over GM food, he writes, "that a staggering one in three European citizens agrees with the statement that ‘Ordinary tomatoes don’t have genes but genetically modified ones do.’"
With ignorance like this, what hope is there?
My family farms about 100 miles north of London in the village of Bradenham, on 1,420 acres. My grandfather originally purchased some of this property in 1932, when it was going for £7 per acre. We grow wheat, barley, canola and rye grass for seed with various woodlands and grazing meadows.
We’ve also worked with GM crops when there were UK field scale evaluation trials in the late 1990’s; we grew sugar beet trials for five years. Before planting the first seed, I was confident about the technology—I knew these crops would be good for my farm as well as good for the food security of my country. Growing these crop trials gave us a better appreciation of the potential of the technology. They are an important part of the future for sustainable agriculture, in which we need to produce more food on less land.
Thankfully, a growing number of Europeans appear to agree. Last month, the Independent published a survey showing that a plurality of respondents favored growing GM crops in the UK, with 47 percent approving and 42 percent opposed. I’d like to see this slim plurality grow into a strong majority, but at least we’re headed in the right direction. A decade ago, 54 percent of the public opposed GM crops.
In another encouraging sign, the anti-biotech camp has witnessed some high-profile defections. Earlier this year, Mark Lynas, the British environmentalist, announced his support for GM food.
UK Government officials now actively back the new technologies and are speaking out as well. "While the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies, Europe risks being left behind," warned UK environment minister Owen Paterson in June. "We cannot afford to let that happen."
The free-trade negotiations between the United States and the European Union represent an opportunity to change minds. It would be wonderful if we could emerge from these conversations a year from now with EU bureaucrats granting farmers more freedom to choose what they grow.
Yet we must also tread carefully. If the United States is too aggressive in pushing for biotech acceptance, we could see blowback. Just as we’re taking one step forward, we could risk moving two steps back. I wouldn’t blame negotiators who want a broad trade agreement to take biotechnology off the table entirely.
I don’t think that will be necessary. We call them trade diplomats for a reason: they participate in the art of diplomacy, which involves the tactful handling of thorny affairs. If those on the American side are really good at what they do, they’ll take note of Europe’s homegrown movement toward GM acceptance and leave us in an improved position, ready to catch up with the rest of the world.
David Hill is a third-generation mixed arable and livestock farmer, growing wheat, barley, canola, grass seeds and other crops in Norfolk, UK. David is a Nuffield Scholar and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.