Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

GM is not a panacea for all ills, it's just a new tool in the crop breeders' armoury

Richard Hackett

The battleground for genetically modified technology is centred in the field because the use of this science is mainly in the production of food and animal feed.

When GM techniques were first introduced nearly 20 years ago, uproar within the EU led to severe restrictions being placed on the "release" of GM technology for cultivation. At the time, it was a new technology and perhaps this cautious approach was warranted – when you're in a fog, you drive slowly.

However, over time the fog has cleared, but the legislation and attitude to the GM issue taken by regulators has not and is wholly inappropriate for the times we are in now.

The EPA recently hosted a conference on the regulation and use of GMO technology in Ireland. It included presentations from the regulatory authorities in Ireland, the EU, and the USA, along with academics in the plant science, medical and pharmaceutical arena, farming and the environmental lobby.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is charged with the role of evaluating GM technology. This authority has given its assessment that GM production is "as safe as conventional production".

Given the political pressures the organisation is under, and divergent opinions that exist in the scientific community, this is a really strong statement.

But even this clear conclusion from a highly-regarded body, coupled with the vast experience that other countries have using the technology for many years, doesn't seem to have changed the EU regulators' stance.Some members of the pro-GM lobby haven't helped. They have too often dismissed people's legitimate fears with disdain.

Initially they enthused we could cross "everything with anything" to get "any result we want".

Also Read

I recall attending a wheat conference in 1999 when such wonders as salt-tolerant, drought-resistant and nitrogen-fixing wheat were hailed as being just 10 years away. The reality is that they still are.

As the technology becomes less novel and more established, it is becoming more apparent that GM has its limitations and is really nothing more than another tool in the armoury available to crop breeders.

In the same way as the development of the plot combine or computerised statistics packages revolutionised the ability of a few people to go about their work in a more efficient way, GM is a similar advancement. It is not a panacea for poor breeding, agronomic practice or growing environments.

As the ongoing GM potato trial in Teagasc Oakpark is showing, GM potatoes are, when all is said and done, just potatoes. They suffer from drought stress, get attacked by aphids and they don't (unfortunately) form themselves into an orderly line at the gate come harvest time. They are merely potatoes that have a resistance to the current strains of blight.

The main contention of the anti-GM lobby is that the imposition of GM technology will irreparably damage the environment. As an agronomist, I have arrived at the conclusion that we are merely spectators in the workings of nature, and not in a position to control it.

Consider the huge changes we have imposed on the environment, such as the switch from hay to silage, or the introduction of herbicides into cereal production. Nature has been shown to prevail in the face of these. To suggest that the introduction of GM technology will imbalance theecosystem is being disingenuous.

It is the right of any citizen to publicise, lobby and influence public opinion and it is appropriate for the anti GM lobby is given time and space to put forward their opinion.

However, it is the role of regulators to regulate for the greater good, rather than simply finding a middle ground that will placate every view. Given the vast body of independent scientific evidence and experience that is now available, it is not appropriate that the anti-GM stance is given the predominant weighting in current legislation.

Dr Richard Hackett is an agricultural consultant and ITCA and ACA member.

Irish Independent