Ireland losing out because of irrational hostility to GM
Europe is the exception to the general acceptance of GMOs, despite clear evidence of their safety and value
The green movement, to its eternal shame and discredit, set itself against GM, and used every political device possible to incite public distrust of the technology, geneticists and seed companies. Politicians and the media, one group as ill-informed as the other, climbed on to the green bandwagon and Europe paralysed itself with regulations. To this day, Greenpeace “opposes the release of GE (GM) crops, including ‘golden’ rice, into the environment”, an attitude with echoes of Rome’s rejection of Galileo.
A conference was held in October in Dublin by the Environmental Protection Agency on The Regulation and Use of GMO Technology in Ireland. There was a consensus that Europeans need a fresh look at the whole matter. We heard Dr David Heron of the US department of agriculture explain how the US regulatory system was so much more scientific than the European system. Some key differences under US regulations are that “the safety risks of GE (GM) organisms are not fundamentally different from safety risks posed by non-GE organisms with similar traits”; and “regulation [is] science- based”. The EU agricultural policy must be aligned to credible science.
Important for Ireland
GM is important for Ireland. Take blight-resistant GM potatoes. Farmers typically spray 10-20 times against blight; organic farmers use the dangerous Bordeaux mix, which releases toxic copper into the environment. Teagasc is trialling blight-resistant GM potatoes, and it would be relatively simple to use GM to make Rooster (and other Irish favourites) blight-resistant. The new GM varieties will need much less or even no spraying. Can one imagine a “greener” project?
GM rape and corn are widely planted outside Europe. GM sugar beet might be a factor in reviving our sugar industry. For the future we should be working on the discovery and GM transmission of disease-resistant genes for example against ash die-back disease, and rusts in cereals.
Public opposition to GM plants and food is fundamentally irrational, and has been whipped up by activists, including Greenpeace. GM is not high among public concerns – only about 20 of more than 10,000 contacts per year to the Food Safety Authority concern GM.
The geneticist Norman E Borlaug, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the green revolution, said: “Farmers across the world must have access to current high-yielding crop-production methods as well as new biotechnological breakthroughs that can increase the yields, dependability, and nutritional quality of our basic food crops. We need to bring common sense into the debate on agricultural science and technology, and the sooner the better!”
Dr David McConnell is professor of genetics at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin