Last Tuesday, the European Commission approved the cultivation of genetically-modified (GM) potatoes but well-fed environmentalists and some European ministers slammed the move. Despite more than a decade of use with no credible evidence of of negative health impacts, the anti-science lobby against food biotechnology remains strong.
Last October in Ireland, the Green Party had an aspiration to declare Ireland a GM-free zone, official government policy. So the pro-science party on climate change, is anti-science on GM foods and ignorantly opposes the use of better seeds in areas of the world which are most at risk from climate change induced droughts.
The late Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution took issue with the scaremongering about GM food. "They claim that the consumer is being poisoned out of existence by the current high-yielding systems of agricultural production and recommend we revert back to lower-yielding, so-called sustainable technologies," he said in a speech in New Orleans in 1993. Unfortunately, he said, it is not possible to turn the clock back to the 1930s, when the population of the world was 2.2 billion. It was estimated at 5.6 billion in 1995 and was projected to rise to 8.3 billion by 2025.
"Biotechnology helps farmers produce higher yields on less land. This is a very environmentally favourable benefit. For example, the world’s grain output in 1950 was 692 million tons. Forty years or so later, the world’s farmers used about the same amount of acreage but they harvested 1.9 billion tons — a 170% increase! We would have needed an additional 1.8 billion hectares of land, instead of the 600 million used, had the global cereal harvest of 1950 prevailed in 1999 using the same conventional farming methods," Borlaug said. "If we had continued practicing conventional farming, we would have cut down millions of acres of forest, thereby destroying wildlife habitat, in order to increase cropland to produce enough food for an escalating population. And we would have to use more herbicides in more fields, which would damage the environment even more. Technology allows us to have less impact on soil erosion, biodiversity, wildlife, forests, and grasslands," he added.
These were the words of a man who saved India from famine in the 1960s when wheat production jumped from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20 million in 1970.
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The European Commission approved the cultivation of the Amflora potato, which was developed by the German chemical giant BASF, to be grown "for the production of starch suitable for industrial application (e.g., paper production) … (as it) helps to optimise the production process and to save raw materials, energy, water and oil-based chemicals." While it was also approved for use in animal feed, products from the Amflora potato will not be permitted in foodstuffs intended for human consumption.
The EU Commission said its latest decision was "based on a considerable volume of sound science."
"Responsible innovation will be my guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies," EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli assured.
"After an extensive and thorough review of the five pending GM files, it became clear to me that there were no new scientific issues that merited further assessment," he added.
Austria said it would immediately ban the potatoes, while Italian Health Minister Luca Zaia said Italy will resist the decision.
"We want to underscore that we will not allow the questioning of member states' sovereignty on this matter,"said Zaia. "For our part, we will continue to defend and safeguard traditional agriculture and citizens' health."
Chantal Jouanno, a junior minister in the French government, said the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) had ignored the environmental effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
"We do not recognise their expertise because we consider that their opinions are incomplete," she told French daily Le Parisien in an interview.
As with climate change, she could Google to find some "expert" to support her anti-science position.
Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero said it was "shocking ... to authorise a GM crop that puts the environment and public health at risk."
On Tuesday, the EU Commission also allowed three GM maize products to be placed on the European market, though not grown in Europe.
German Green MEP Martin Hausling said it"flies in the face of the 70 percent of consumers who are against GM food."
"This is a bad day for European citizens and the environment," Friends of the Earth told the AFP news agency.
Anti-multinational sentiment has been a big factor in the scaremongering about GM food. Of course, the US firm Monsanto shouldn't have the potential of a monopoly on global seed production but in Europe, the anti-science environmentalists have politicians on the run and public research institutes are subject to threats of violence to prevent them from engaging in research.
In fact, in the short-term, the extremists are more dangerous than the anti-science climate change deniers.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) recently reported continuing expansion in the use of GM seeds in particular in the developing world where droughts are persistent; herbicide resistant plants are in demand and insect resistance reduces the amount of pesticide.
In 2009, 14 million farmers planted 134 million hectares (330 million acres) of biotech crops in 25 countries, up from 13.3 million farmers and 125 million hectares (7 percent) in 2008. Notably, in 2009, 13 of the 14 million farmers, or 90 percent, were small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries.
Trait hectares or “virtual hectares” reached 180 million hectares, up 14 million hectares from 2008. Eight of the 11 countries planting crops with stacked traits were developing nations. Brazil surpassed Argentina as the second largest grower of biotech crops globally. Impressive growth of 5.6 million hectares to 21.4 million hectares, up 35 percent from 2008, was the highest absolute growth for any country in 2009.
The top eight countries, each growing more than 1 million hectares, were: United States (64.0 million ha.), Brazil (21.4 million ha.), Argentina (21.3 million ha.), India (8.4 million ha.), Canada (8.2 million ha.), China (3.7 million ha.), Paraguay (2.2 million ha.), and South Africa (2.1 million ha.). The remaining countries included: Uruguay, Bolivia, Philippines, Australia, Burkina Faso, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Costa Rica, Egypt and Slovakia. zil has produced herbicide-tolerant soyabean developed locally in partnership with BASF
Brazil has produced a herbicide-tolerant soyabean developed locally in partnership with BASF while Chinese researchers have developed GM varieties of rice and maize.
GM cotton has enabled India to change from an importer to the world's biggest cotton exporter although last month, the government called a moritorium on the development of a GM aubergine.