GM 'cure' threatens to be much worse than any agricultural disease


OPINION:Do we go in to battle with nature or choose a path that respects our ecosystem?

“I KNOW an old lady who swallowed a fly” — we all know the song from our childhood, but what can it possibly tell us about genetically modified crops?

Well, unaware of the fact herself, the old lady was actually getting a rather harsh lesson on Sevareid’s Law. Attributed to the late American journalist, Eric Sevareid, the law states that the chief cause of problems is solutions; a fact to which I’m sure the “old lady” would attest as she attempted to swallow the horse, which killed her of course.

To see how Sevareid’s Law relates to our farming systems and, in particular, genetically modified organisms, it is useful to take a look at the world’s longest-running experiment on GM crops, United States agriculture. They began in the US by swallowing the metaphorical fly: degrading their soils and biodiversity through decades of intensive farming.

At this stage they might have done the wise thing and looked towards agro-ecological methods of restoring their damaged ecosystem, increase soil organic matter, reduce use of biocides etc, but alas this did not happen.

Instead, American farmers, spurred on by the massive marketing machine of their biotech and agrochemical industries, decided to seek succour in GM technology – they swallowed a spider. In the short few years following the large-scale roll-out of these novel and under-regulated crops, some problems began to come to light.

American “weeds” began to develop resistance to the herbicides which the crops were engineered to be tolerant of; insect pests targeted by toxins generated in the GM crops also began to build up resistance; the use of agrochemical inputs actually increased over time.

Surely this would have been a good time to reassess their chosen path in favour of something less destructive, but again, this did not happen.

Farmers in the US have now ingested a bird to catch that pesky spider in the form of so-called ‘second generation’ GM seeds. These crops have now been modified to be tolerant of an even more potent cocktail of chemicals than their predecessors. See where this is going?

If we view the recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to grant a licence to Teagasc for the trialling of GM blight-resistant potatoes within this context, and follow our “solution” to its logical conclusion, the futility of the whole endeavour becomes apparent.

Research has shown that Phytophthora infestans, the fungus responsible for late blight, will overcome the defences of plants with resistance based on a single gene within a mere seven years. Simply put, no sooner than any commercial roll-out of GM potatoes has taken place, the wheels of evolution will have rolled right over our “ingenious” solution and carried on as nature intended.

Where to then? Do we modify the potato further to contain more resistance genes thereby exponentially increasing the dangers and uncertainties inherent in the GM process? Perhaps engineered tolerance to an otherwise toxic fungicide?

The thought process underpinning a belief in the merits of genetic engineering betrays a breakdown in our understanding of and connection with the natural world. Rather than viewing our environment as an external force with which we must contend for survival, we must learn to accept the complexities and vagaries of nature and understand that it is diversity, rather than adversity, that will sustain us in the long term.

We do not need to alter the food we grow. We need to alter how we grow it. The proponents of GM technology seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel in search of the solutions to our problems, or as Sevareid might put it, solutions to our solutions.

Drought tolerance can be easily improved by increasing soil organic matter; pest and disease problems can be mitigated through the use of crop rotations, companion planting and increasing biodiversity; nitrogen fixation has been carried out very successfully for aeons by legumes such as peas, beans and clover.

We already produce enough food to feed 11 billion people. The real problem, which no one appears willing to address, is that many do not have access to food and far too much food is either wasted or fed to livestock.

Ireland now finds itself at a crossroads. Do we adopt GM technology and go into battle with nature, or do we choose a path that is respectful towards our ecosystem and seeks to work with nature rather than against it. Swallow the spider or spit out the fly?

Gavin Lynch is public relations and development officer with Organic Trust Ltd

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