Only GM or premium prices can save tillage sector from a lengthy slump
My last article, in which I suggested that farmers be allowed to grow GM varieties if consumers are not willing to pay a premium for GM-free produce, resulted in some very strongly worded responses.
Farmers who have been very progressive and have consistently adopted new technologies - the latest machinery, new chemicals and production techniques - feel cheated that the most recent technologies of genetic modification are denied to them.
They are acutely aware that our reliance on a natural disaster in some part of the crop growing world to reduce supply and cause a price hike is no longer likely.
The yield increases with GM decrease the likelihood that grain supply will be tight.
Adequate to surplus supply on the market will not enable viable prices for Irish or European farmers without a significant increase in yields/reduction in costs - which is what GM offers.
Many of the new GM varieties offer herbicide and insect resistance which will not alone reduce costs, but also reduce our pesticide load and thereby reduce risk to the environment.
The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook for 2016-2025 predicts that the price of cereals will be primarily cost driven and that cereal prices will be lower than the previous decade.
We need a substantial increase in yield to remain financially viable with grain prices similar to 10 years ago.
If GM can provide an extra yield potential of 20pc, it is the means of keeping cereal production viable.
It is frustrating for farmers to find that they can feed imported GM varieties but not be allowed to grow them.
Livestock farmers are very conscious of our reliance on the importation of feedstuffs, particularly protein, and that any restriction would leave them at a serious competitive disadvantage.
Growing of GM crops is also likely to create difficulties for some of our exports.
People opposed to GM, both farmers and non-farmers, had a range of concerns about food safety and environmental risks, which they believe have not been adequately addressed.
The fact that the EU is allowing imports of GM products yet not giving approval to grow those varieties in Europe is creating suspicion that there are safety issues which are not being disclosed.
The use of GM will also increase farmer reliance on large multi-national companies and increased seed costs. The risk of GM herbicide tolerance being transferred from crops to weeds or of controlling volunteer GM cereals are seen as major issues.
Technology and science moves rapidly. All the debate so far has been on GM plants - plants to which DNA from different species has been introduced.
Scientists can now edit the DNA of individual species to get more desirable traits expressed without resorting to introducing DNA from other species.
The New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBT) will enable faster and cheaper production of new varieties.
In the US, where GM varieties developed using NPBT are not subject to approval by regulators, it is expected that there will be a large number of new varieties marketed within the next few years.
Currently there is debate in Europe to determine if NPBT falls under GMO legislation.
If they are determined to do so, it is most unlikely that we will get to benefit of these developments for many years.
Meanwhile, our competitors will move on at an unprecedented pace while our regulators remain stuck in a rut with GM.
The regulatory process within Europe is very slow. Currently we have one GM variety approved and there are two more maize varieties up for approval on January 27.
The slow approval may be driven by the Precautionary Principal - no approval if there is a perception of risk.
When it comes to food it is difficult to argue against that. Surely the same precautionary principal should apply to our food/feed imports.
Most of the current GM varietal traits offer little to Irish or most European farmers.
However the technology is moving very fast and is targeted to countries that have less regulatory controls.
If current controls are necessary and if Europe wants food produced to European standards, tillage farmers must be compensated with premium prices for premium product.
PJ Phelan is a tillage advisor based in Tipperary and is a member of the ACA and ITCA.
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