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Why we Need GM Foods?

Michael WiganDaily Telegraph,
June 2, 2008

The Government is accused of having lost touch with reality.

No better example exists than agriculture minister Hilary Benn's insistence that domestic food production is unnecessary for food security.

Other countries across the world are protecting their populations from running low; even major food exporters like Argentina are beginning to restrict some exports. American rice rationing is a fact.

World leaders are starting openly to talk about food running out. The sharp commodity price hikes after 10 years of stagnation are causing alarm. China is now seeking to buy farm-land abroad further increasing alarm.

The arguments about genetically modified crops are being resurrected. When the price of a loaf of bread doubles, as it is on the way to doing, the public's pickiness about production methods will weaken.

GM can be seen as crop modification addressing contemporary problems. Take fuel costs and the carbon effects of heavy tractors churning over fields. On a crop of GM sugar-beet or oil seeds weeds are controlled with one 'pass', the tractor using an all-inclusive weed-killer to over-spray the crop which itself remains undamaged. Ordinary sugar-beet varieties require three to four sprayings.Not only is the labour cost quartered, and the cost of the fertiliser quartered, so is the wear and tear on machinery and the need for its replacement. This lighter impact agriculture clicks in down the whole crop cycle. As tractors traverse soil they compact it. Plant roots - wheat has a one metre root - cannot get water and nutrients from deep down. Along comes the sub-soiler, a spike dragged slowly, in low gear, deep into the 'pan', breaking it up again to aereate the soil.

If you only traverse the field once to kill the weeds, compaction is reduced and aggressive sub-soiling needed less often. Less time, less fuel, less labour, lower carbon, and less spray-drift for those who object to farm chemicals.

Fuel cost is one of the main drivers behind re-consideration of GM. We all know it costs more to fill the car. Less well-known is that in every budget since 1997 the taxation cost of red diesel used on farms has closed the gap on ordinary motorists' diesel. Farmers have been a conveniently mute target for the Chancellor's punishment.Added to the fuel spike the figures are dramatic. Accountants Grant Thornton say farmers spent £47 per farm hectare on fuel in 2006 and 2007 harvests. The crop growing in the ground now will have cost £74 a hectare. The urgency of cutting this cost is pressing. If using GM means three to four times less fuel consumption, along with the other environmental and economic benefits, how can British farmers be expected to compete with crops from biotech's cheaper systems on other continents?

Then there is disease. Last year a sizeable part of the potato crop was wasted by blight. GM can protect crops from disease; crops can also be designed better to resist drought, a food supply threat over southern Europe.

Last time GM crop trials were tried in Britain, with maize and sugar-beet, protesters pulled up the plants. Next time the public may view this sabotage of our survival strategy with less indifference. Last time public identification of the trial farms - and targets for the protesters - was compulsory under freedom of information legislation. With some food becoming expensive or unavailable, will we condone so readily this incongruous legal anomaly?

Over half of western Canada's enormous output of grain is grown using 'minimum tillage', a more natural soil-management system which tickles the ground rather than turning it over by ploughing, whilst retaining normal yields.

British farmers are increasingly using min-till on appropriate soils with encouraging results. But, surreally, on being asked about the promotion of min-till here at home, a method capable of addressing headline issues of flooding and soil erosion, the agriculture department seemed unaware of its existence.

Government departments need to wake up to what is going on and engage with the real world. Presently the fastest conversion to min-till is happening in eastern Europe, competitors in our market.

Science magazine, reporting on an international conference about the future role of biotech in agriculture, used the title, 'Dueling visions for a hungry world'. GM and anti-GM points of view are sharply entrenched.

However, if as opponents claim, GM leads to crop reduction and sterilised land, why is it that so many farmers are turning to it? GM is now grown on over 100m hectares globally. The USA has swept ahead with GM as an aid in maximising outputs of maize and soyabeans making food and animal feeds America's largest export. No harmful side effects on American consumers have hitherto been detected, or even claimed.

That is the trigger for a change of view in Europe, which is the world's only large food producer holding out against GM with the support of consumers. If damage to human health was proven, or suspected, Europeans are affluent enough, in the main, to continue as they are, with food becoming a bulkier living cost year on year.

But the refusal to use the biotech tool of modern agriculture, in essence the same as the plant development which has been going on since the first wheat-type plants were discovered by the Assyrians beside the Euphrates, will alter with non-availability of traditional foods. Will Italians prefer modified durrum wheat for their pasta to no pasta?

The small area of Spain, Germany and Portugal in which GM maize is grown today with EU regulatory approval is not controversial. Yet few consumers realise that in imported livestock and poultry they are eating GM-fed animals already.

Virtually all the Argentinian and American soyabean crop has been modified, and Brazil's is rapidly becoming so. This is used to feed chickens, cattle, and pigs prior to slaughter, protein which duly appears on supermarket shelves at lower prices than our home-reared meat fed a costlier diet. No wonder our livestock sector is collapsing.

The acceleration of Europe towards status as a major food importer is contrary to geology and geography. Europe has some of the best arable land anywhere. The cutting-edge revolutions in food production, like rotational copping, occurred here. China, raking the world for food-producing soils elsewhere, has limited arable land, and in the rush for infrastructure growth over ten per cent of the best ground has inadvertently been concreted over.

Soon cavalier attitudes to usable land will change. As was until recently the case, intelligent planning will assess land's ability to grow food before permitting it to be developed. The Council for the Protection of Rural England says we are losing 23 square miles of land a year. Natural England is actually proposing to flood good East Anglian farm-land in favour of creating salt-marsh, a policy viewed with stupefaction by the Dutch who have won back their country from the encroaching sea.

Food sufficiency, the argument will go, demands soil to work and the best of biotechnology to exploit it. The time is advancing when crop yields, at present arcane considerations only for the human earthworms, will be seen as an economic, environmental and consumer benefit.

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