Thriplow Farms Ltd.By Oliver Walston
Monday, 14th June, 1999
Farmer Offers Land For GM Trials
In the days since the Prince of Wales nailed his testament to the masthead of the Daily Mail, I have stood aghast on the sidelines as the debate over GM food has raged ever more noisily. Like most farmers, I am confused by the prospect of genetic engineering and have - unlike my organic friends in the Soil Association - an open mind.
I have no idea whether GM crops will turn out to be good or bad for the world, which is why I cannot answer the Prince's fundamental question: do we need GM food in this country? I would also have great difficulty in knowing whether we really need baked beans or - come to think of it - the Daily Mail.
Hindsight is a wonderful gift, which comes to all of us if we wait long enough. A century ago, had anyone asked my great-grandparents if they needed a telephone, they would have received a dusty reply. Nobody needed the Wright Brothers' machine and, at the time Alexander Fleming was beginning his research on moulds, few would have been certain that the world needed penicillin. Thus I am not persuaded of the argument that proven need is a significant factor in technological advance.
Another strand in the Soil Association's argument that I find difficult to understand is its belief that the only people who will benefit from GM technology are the hated multinationals. I cannot see why any farmer - be he an East Anglian barley baron such as myself, or an Ethiopian peasant growing sorghum - will buy GM seeds unless he wishes to.
But to hear some of the GM-haters talk, you get the strong impression that Third World farmers will be forced to give up their traditional practices and their traditional varieties because Monsanto says so.
I know that, on my own farm in Cambridgeshire, I will only even contemplate using GM varieties in the future if I am reasonably certain that they do no damage to the environment and will also produce a crop that the consumer wants.
On neither of these points have I yet seen any evidence to support or disprove the case for GM crops. And yet the organic lobby has apparently already made up its mind. I find this depressing, but not surprising.
The reason I am not surprised is that opposition to GM crops is based on a philosophy; some would even call it a religion. Among these appears to be the government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, who believes the Soil Association is run by ayatollahs.
This is a trifle unfair, because most of them are serious and passionate people, united in an unshakable belief that they are right. Unfortunately this certainty means that those of us who do not share their faith are dismissed as being at best short-sighted, and at worst wicked.
It is true that today - at the early stages of the technology - most GM crops being tested are designed to resist particular herbicides, and thus increase the sales of these weedkillers.
But the same technology could - and I hope will - be used to grow crops on saline or arid soil. To point this out is not, as the Prince of Wales suggests, to engage in emotional blackmail.
It is understandable for some people to announce they will not eat GM foods. This is consumer choice - a thoroughly good thing. It is also why detailed labelling showing GM ingredients should be mandatory. But the safety of GM foods is not - or should not be - at issue.
The same cannot, however, be said for the effect of GM crops on the environment, which is why the Government is right to forbid commercial plantings until tests have been carried out that satisfy all but the most intransigent opponents of GM technology. The only way we shall know what effect GM crops have on the environment is to continue the testing programme under strict controls.
To most people, this seems like common sense. But to a small minority of fanatics, even the carefully controlled trials must be stopped. These groups have now been so successful in destroying GM trial sites that CPB-Twyford, one of Britain's leading plant breeders, recently announced that it could no longer accept this level of wanton destruction and would stop all work on GM crops. Chalk up another victory to mob rule.
Sixty years ago in Germany, people in brown shirts smashed their way into private houses and burnt the books they found on the shelves. They claimed that the ideas contained within those books would pervert the minds of Germany's young.
Today in Britain, people dressed in white coats are entering the private property of individual farmers and destroying crops, because they claim that the varieties being grown will cross-pollinate the plants of Britain. It is depressing that not a single word of condemnation has been heard from the organic movement about these groups.
Until we know in detail what effects GM crops will have on the environment, it would be folly for these varieties to be grown on a commercial basis. But unless trials are carried out, we shall never know the answers.
This is why I am today inviting any bona fide plant breeder to use my farm to carry out properly organised trials on GM crops. Only by doing this will I - and every other farmer - ever hope to know the answers.
Until then I shall remain open-minded. Is it really asking too much of the organic movement - and the media - to be equally agnostic?
Copyright 1999 Thriplow Farms Ltd. All Rights Reserved
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