Biotech giant Bayer has halted GM cultivation in Britain because of flawed trials and financial risk. If only the government was so wise, says Michael Meacher.
Why did Bayer do it? The company’s decision to pull its genetically modified Chardon LL maize so soon after the British government authorised its cultivation is a huge setback for the industry and a major embarrassment for the prime minister’s championship of GM.
Bayer said the conditions imposed by the government were too restrictive – richly ironic when the government is leaving no stone unturned to get GM crops approved and grown in Britain. Ministers had already gone out of their way to wave through GM maize following the farm-scale evaluation (FSE) trials, even though the trials’ conclusion did not justify the go-ahead.
The government’s decision was flawed on several counts. No valid conclusions can be drawn from these trials because the weedkiller atrazine was used on almost all the conventional maize – a highly toxic chemical with damaging side effects which is now banned EU-wide. Any tests based on atrazine as a comparator are now irrelevant. New trials with a new chemical are needed; the government, however, disagrees.
The trials were flawed in other respects. The weedkiller used on the GM maize was glufosinate ammonium (brand name Liberty). In the US, farmers growing GM maize have to use Liberty ATZ, a more powerful and environmentally harmful mix of Liberty and atrazine. Bayer must have been aware that Liberty alone was ineffective. Perhaps it hoped to first secure marketing consent for GM maize crops, and later switch the pesticide recommendations to ATZ-type mixes.
These tactics almost paid off, but two things went wrong. First, the government’s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) proposed that if GM maize cultivation were allowed to go ahead, the same regime would have to be followed as in the FSE trials.
It presented a dilemma for the government and the industry. The government could only guarantee FSE-comparable trials by amending EU regulations on atrazine. The commission and 14 other member states would be unlikely to agree to this. For the industry, without the option to use the Liberty ATZ mix, too many weeds would survive, making the crop yields uneconomic for most farmers.
In addition, biotech companies always maintained that there was no problem over cross-contamination of organic and conventional crops because separation distances ensured almost none occurred, or if it did, it could be dealt with quite easily by the GM farmer taking out insurance.
But no insurance company would provide cover for GM crops, and the government properly refused to use taxpayers’ money to bail out the industry if anything went wrong.
The industry was hoist on its own petard. It was invited to cover the costs of what it roundly declared to be a virtually non-existent problem, and it balked at it. Its big lie was exposed. Rather than taking the risk of having to compensate organic or conventional farmers driven out of business by GM contamination, it cut its losses and pulled out.
So what now? The problems associated with GM are becoming clearer and, in the case of issues such as co-existence and separation distances, are probably insoluble. In Britain, the more that people find out about GM the more they are opposed. And in the EU as a whole, the refusal of member states to process GM applications shows no sign of weakening.
Globally, GM crops are confined (in other than insignificant amounts) to just four countries – the US with 66% of global GM production, Argentina 23%, Canada 6%, China 4%, and the other 181 countries together with less than 1%. Most staggeringly of all, no systematic testing has yet been carried out on the health impacts of eating GM foods.
GM crops will not be planted in Britain for several years, and we should use that time to draw breath and reflect. Is GM really the way forward when there are no consumer benefits and huge potential risks? Let’s switch the focus to alternative technologies, notably marker assisted selection, which offers a qualitative leap in precision over traditional breeding techniques.