The surprise majority victory of the Tories in the United Kingdom’s national elections last week provides Prime Minister David Cameron with a clear working majority for a political party that has not led a unified government since 1997.
Those were the headlines.
The coalition government made some difficult decisions based on science and there is now real hope that this engagement in science will continue with the new Conservative government. Helping the EU to accept the critical and global role of genetically modified crops in an affordable and sustainable food supply will hopefully continue.
GMOs remain controversial throughout Europe, partly because Europeans have not seen firsthand the amazing benefits they offer, but perhaps chiefly because NGOs have distorted the media’s coverage of this technology so badly. Labelling in its current form also provides no help in educating the consumer that these products are a vital and safe part of their everyday food purchases.
Two years ago, however, Cameron made clear his openness to GMOs when he vowed to develop a “pro-science culture” in government.
“It is time to look again at the whole issue of GM food,” he said. “We need to be open to arguments from science.”
Cameron’s deputies have echoed these sentiments.
Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss—who easily won re-election to her South West Norfolk seat last week—added her voice to the debate in January. “I think GM crops have a role to play here,” she said at the Oxford Farming Conference. “If you look at what has happened in the U.S., crops are being grown in a more environmentally friendly way, with less water usage and less pesticide usage. I would like us to have that opportunity. Our farmers need access to technology that will help them work in world markets.”
Cameron and Truss have moved the debate on and have engaged in the science that the issue has lacked: The United Kingdom and all of Europe must become more engaged in all forms of breeding techniques and ensure we keep pace with global progress.
I speak as a farmer who grows wheat, vining peas, potatoes, maize, and livestock in Yorkshire. I also grow oilseed rape, which produces a central ingredient for cooking oils—and for three years I participated in field trials for a GM variety. Seeing the benefits first hand in a field situation was vital for me in being able to make a proper evaluation of the technology.
As a farmer, I fully appreciate crop genetics will be key to growing more food on less land in a more sustainable way. That ability to respond with new genetics takes some of the pressure off land, and helps in maintaining wildlife balance. We have to view agricultural production in a global sense, making the adoption of every form of precision technology critical in terms of food security and food affordability.
A report issued on the same day as the elections from PG Economics in Dorchester explained the global benefits. Between 1996 and 2013, farmers around the world produced an extra 274 million tons of maize and 138 million tons of soya — with GM now a fundamental part of that production. It isn’t just the usual countries that are looking at the technology, it is striking that there are now more farmers in the developing countries adopting the technology than first world.
It is now a real possibility that this government will continue with a science lead approach and move forward allowing field tests so that we can learn as much as possible about GM crops and the opportunities they afford. With the right kinds of traits, matched for local conditions, we have a chance to solve problems in new ways and have the possibility of providing new health benefits.
Last month, EU regulators announced that individual countries would have the right to opt out of any decisions to open the door to GM crops. This runs contrary to free trade within the EU and ignores the need to operate on the basis of science. It also sits uneasily with the EU requirement to import soya the majority of which is GM.
Last week’s election results will cause Brussels to reflect on the UK’s concern for many issues as it comes with a pledge to hold referendum on membership, set for 2017. The European Commission’s “Innovation Scorecard” shows that Europe trails the United States on almost every measure, and is now losing ground to Asia. GM crops aren’t the only part of this broader concern, but they’re an important part. The EU has some fantastic research facilities producing some amazing science, hopefully in the not too distant future it will find its way to improving that scorecard for the benefit of all.
Paul Temple grows cereals, vegetables along with grazing beef cattle on a mixed arable farm in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Involved in the UK FSE trials for 3 years, Paul is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).