By Annechien ten Have Mellema: Beerta, Netherlands
Here in Europe, we hear a lot of negative claims about GMOs. People don’t trust them, say the activist groups. Or they aren’t natural. Or they just enrich big corporations. Or they’re bad for the environment.
Ordinary people don’t hear other opinions. Even farmers like me aren’t aware of them.
It took a visit to Iowa last fall for me to learn about a different perspective. And I realized that it is very strange that we don’t have a balanced discussion on GMOs in Europe. I wasn’t aware of this as a farmer.
I was a guest of the Global Farmer Network, visiting Des Moines, Iowa during the annual World Food Prize celebrations. I met farmers from all over the planet. We were a diverse bunch. Several were Americans who grow corn and soybeans on enormous farms. Many were from Africa and Asia, where they struggle to make a living on tiny parcels of land.
My farm is in the northern part of the Netherlands. With my husband and our son, we raise pigs as well as wheat, corn, and sugar beets on 250 hectares on a family farm. We also produce biogas.
Despite our variety, the farmers I met in Iowa shared much in common, from concerns about labor and infrastructure to challenges involving capital and interest.
I was surprised to learn that the planting and harvesting of GMOs is so widespread. Around the world, farmers have planted and harvested more than 5 billion acres of these biotech crops over the last two decades. Nine out of ten of the farmers who take advantage of this technology are smallholders in developing countries.
A farmer from India told me that GMO cotton has allowed him to cut his use of pesticides by 30 percent, improving the economic value of his crop. There are other benefits as well. Now he burns less fuel, which means that his equipment has reduced the emissions that contribute to climate change. He also tills less, which means that he does a better job of protecting against soil erosion.
An American described how she grows both GMO and non-GMO soybeans, almost side by side—suggesting that new technologies can coexist with conventional methods.
I’m impressed that so many farmers say that GMOs allow them to grow more food on less land. This is an important advantage—especially in a country like the Netherlands, where land is at such a premium that we’ve had to reclaim much of it from the sea.
In Europe, however, we don’t hear these viewpoints.
Even before my involvement with the Global Farmer Network, I had questions about what I’d heard in my own and neighboring countries. We already use GMOs to produce human medicine such as insulin. Why not also use them for crops that people eat? Moreover, it never made sense to me that the EU permits the importation of GMO corn and soybeans, but that we cannot grow either on our own farms.
We’ve never raised GMO crops on our farm in the Netherlands. Until recently, it never had occurred to me that we might try. We simply aren’t allowed.
I don’t know if we ever will want to grow them. It would depend the acceptance of society on what the seeds promise to deliver, how much they cost, and whether they’re suitable for our conditions. If all these farmers outside EU work with GM crops, what keeps us Europeans against GMO? It is not clear to me and to a lot of other farmers and citizens in the EU.
So in Europe, we need to start a new conversation about GMOs—an open and honest one that accounts for different points of view.
Annechien ten Have Mellema focuses on integrated sustainable agriculture as part of a family partnership that raises pigs, wheat, sugar beets and corn in the Netherlands. Annechien is a member of the Global Farmer Network.