'Future of tillage depends on access to GM crops'

Genetically modified corn.
Genetically modified corn.
PJ Phelan

PJ Phelan

Farmers are food producers - no farmers, no food.

Our farmers produce food to EU standards, determined by scientists. Those scientists dictate a range of criteria about which most people know little or nothing.

Some of the criteria are self-explanatory - toxic, not approved, maximum residue level, minimum pre-harvest interval, acceptable daily dose. Those standards provide use with assurances that our food is safe but they come at a substantial cost to farmers.

Non-EU farmers do not produce food to those standards. Some of the feedstuffs we import for our animals are grown specifically for animal consumption; others such as distiller grains, beet and citrus pulp, soya hulls, maize gluten and rapeseed meal are by-products left after manufacturing other materials.

Imports do not undergo the same rigorous traceability and testing as home grown products.

With the introduction of End of Waste Regulations - any by-product that was not required as part of the manufacturing process was defined as waste. Waste was not managed to the standards required for animal feedstuffs.

Europe continues to import poorly regulated feedstuffs for animals. Those animals will in turn be consumed by Europeans.

 Ireland imports approximately three million tonnes of animal feed each year, with half of it coming from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ukraine and the United States. In 2014 over 1.2 million tonnes of maize GM products and soya were imported for animal feed.

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An estimated 90pc of imported products from North and South America are derived from genetically modified crops.

These imports are considered essential for us to meet the current protein requirements in animal feedstuffs. All GM food or feed for import to EU countries must be authorised and if it contains more that 0.9pc GM it must be labelled accordingly.

With more and more GM traits are being introduced it is becoming increasing difficult to ensure that all imports consist of EU authorised materials.

EU consumers are reported to concerned about the use of many new technologies used for food production and about the risk of pesticide residues in food. Objections to GM are based on considerations other than science.

But price still appears to be the main determinant when it comes to feedstuff and food purchase.

The use of GM has reduced production costs for countries exporting feedstuffs to the EU. Farmer have increased yields, improved quality, lowered pesticide costs and are producing crops on land that in the past was unsuitable for production.

We are currently denied those opportunities. If we cannot compete with production costs we will not be able to compete with price. If we cannot compete on price we will be forced out of business. We allowed ourselves to be pushed out of sugar beet production.

Our land suffered, our supplies suffered, our margins were eroded and the skills we had are now only a memory. If we allow ourselves to be pushed out of cereal crop production the consequences will be severe for the entire farming community.

We will probably continue to purchase what appear to be Irish cereal products, just as we still buy 'Suicre'.

Irish farmers will never be able to achieve the economies of scale of the main cereal producing areas of the world.

Our unpredictable weather forces us to make larger investments in machinery and our land costs are excessive.

Assuming that the future for the Irish cereal industry lies with achieving higher yields we need to be allowed to get access to GM varieties.

Before doing so we need to be sure that our produce will meet consumer acceptance and that the use of GM will not tarnish our green image.

There is a need for a strong educational campaign so the consumers are aware of the fact that if they want to be GM-free the first step is to avoid purchasing all foods that are not guaranteed GM-free.

They need to be aware that most meat is produced from animals that have consumed GM feedstuffs and if they want to avoid this they must opt for meat that is guaranteed GM-free.

Irish farmers will gladly continue to produce cereals and meat that are totally GM free, but they will have to be paid for doing so.

If the consumer does not want to pay, let us move on, let use us GM and restore viability to the cereal sector.

PJ Phelan is a tillage advisor based in Tipperary and is a member of the ACA and ITCA

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