(Beyond Pesticides, July 9, 2008) High food prices, climate change and increasing concern over fresh water supplies are helping to fuel interest in new genetically modified (GM) technology in the European Union (EU), which has long been wary of foods derived from tinkering with the genetic make-up of plants. The European Commission has said it believes GM crops can alleviate the current crisis in food supply, although it added in June that expediency should not overrule strict scientific scrutiny of the use of GM technology.
A European Commission-sponsored Eurobarometer opinion poll last month showed a slight increase in knowledge and acceptance of the technology. New consumer interests in GM seed varieties, which are likely to be more resistant to drought and able to produce reasonable yields with significantly less water, have increased. In a similar opinion poll conducted in March, the number of EU respondents saying they lacked information on GMs fell to 26 percent, compared with 40 percent in the previous, 2005 survey. Fifty-eight percent were apprehensive about GM use and just 21 percent in favor, down from 26 percent in favor in a 2006.
The European Union has not approved any GM crops for a decade and the 27 member countries often clash on the issue. France has banned certain GM crops pending review of the scientific evidence on their safety. Outside the EU, Switzerland has a moratorium on growing GM crops, though authorities have granted permission for three GM crop trials between 2008 and 2010 for research. Agrochemcial companies are already riding wave of high food prices and roaring demand for farm goods. Monsanto, DuPont Co and Syngenta AG have all raised 2008 earnings forecasts already this year. However, this new shift in attitudes to GM technology is seen as a substantial opportunity for these companies. The European seeds market is worth $7.9 billion from a global total of $32.7 billion. The global GM seeds market was worth $6.9 billion in 2007 and is set to grow further.
The chairman of Nestle, the world’s largest food group, has said it is impossible to feed the world without genetically modified organisms and the British government’s former chief adviser Sir David King said this week GM crops hold the key to solving the world’s food crisis.
However, GM technology still has many opponents who fear GM crops can create health problems for animals and humans, wreak havoc on the environment, and will give far-reaching control over the world’s food to a few giant corporate organizations. Critics charge that the technology does not bring its promised benefits. A recent report by organic group the Soil Association, concluded that yields of all major GM varieties are equivalent to, or less than those from conventional crops. Earlier this year, this group also became the first to formally reject nanoparticles in food (See Daily News Blog).
“GM chemical companies constantly claim they have the answer to world hunger while selling products which have never led to overall increases in production, and which have sometimes decreased yields or even led to crop failure,” said Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director.
Geert Ritsema, a genetic engineering campaigner at Greenpeace International, said proponents of GM crop technology are using high prices to scare consumers that their food will become too expensive. Currently high prices benefit large agrochemical companies and farm suppliers, with much of the cost being passed on to consumers. Food prices are up more than 50 percent since May 2006, sparking protests in many countries including Argentina, Indonesia and Mexico. Many call for more consumer awareness of the technology, which could also reinforce wariness.
“I think that if consumers become really educated, that’s the point they’ll end up at and say ‘why should I mess around with this technology when it has no benefits to me?” said Jean Halloran, head of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.
Studies have shown that GM crops can lead to a large increase in pesticide use, due to increased insect resistance. GM crops have also been found to harm aquatic ecosystems and contaminate organic and non-GM crops.