GM crops good. GM crops bad.

We deserve a really proper debate on GM food and GM crops. Sadly we’re not getting one just yet – instead we seem to have opted for the “good” vs “evil” wrangle we are oh so fond of in this country.

It is so much easier to divide the world into goodies and baddies, rather than have a proper informed think about something as absolutely fundamental as how we’re going to feed ourselves.

And what a huge (missed) opportunity for a consumer food business to demonstrate a bit of brand leadership by helping us poor consumers get our heads around the subtleties of the issue.

Come on Tesco, come on Philip Clarke – remember what you said after horsegate?

“We pledge that over the weeks and months ahead, we will open up our supply chain and give you more information than any retailer has before to enable you to make informed choices about the food you buy” .  

When it comes to GM I’m not sure we have anything like the right insight to be able to make “informed choices”.

And in some respects we’re not being given a choice at all. Take eggs for example. The BBC reported that “the facts are that no GM food is on sale in this country”. True but…the eggs sold by Tesco, Asda and Morrisons are from hens eating GM feed. So whilst the egg itself isn’t GM, there’s GM in the chain. Not sure how many people are aware of that, nor am I sure how well it sits alongside Tesco’s pledge that “if it isn’t on the label, it isn’t in the product.”

Monsanto's lab - maybe...
Monsanto’s lab – maybe…

Less emotion, less hyperbole, more facts please

There’s a lot of hyperbole, a lot of emotive language, a lot of dodgy assertions in this debate. For instance:

“GM is the cuckoo in the nest – it drives out and destroys the systems that international scientists agree we need to feed the world”; “We need farming that helps poor African and Asian farmers produce food, not farming that helps Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto produce profits”  – Peter Melchett, Soil Association

“GM allows us to farm more efficiently, use less land, giving us the wonderful opportunity to free up the land for wilderness and forestry”; (on the fact that the US has been scoffing GM for years with no discernible health effects) “it’s the biggest field trial in human history” Owen Paterson

And then there’s the oft repeated (and disputed) assertion that “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market” – Vandan Shiva

The future of food? The end of the world?
The future of food? The end of the world?

Let’s have a proper debate – this is really important

There’s a lot of potential to GM that’s worth exploring, as well as undeniable concerns about the unintended consequences of widespread adoption of the technology.

I had my eyes opened to the potential of GM during a trip to see Nandan biotech in Hyderabad. Jatropha is a GM crop that can be used as fuel. It grows on scrubland so doesn’t take away precious land used for agriculture. It gives Indian farmers new sources of income as well as access to fuel (they keep 50% of the crop). It should allow India to be more self sufficient in fuel. So that all makes a lot of sense. The big unknown is what happens to the ecosystem when you introduce millions of hectares of a new crop (it’s not native).

So what are the big issues?

  • GM could potentially feed a lot of people – with population growth heading towards 9 billion it’s hard to disagree with Owen Paterson when he said “it is our duty to explore technologies like GM because they may hold the answers to the very serious challenges ahead”
  • The environmental impact of GM is a big deal. We’ve already got problems with bees etc. We need to understand what we’re playing with. Equally – if it does enable less use of land can we make sure we use that spare land to redress the environmental balance.
  • Human health seems to be less of an issue but we need to keep an eye on it.
  • The technology must be made very widely available not restricted to a very small number of companies – how do we ensure that farmers all over the world benefit, and are not economically dependent on the likes of Monsanto
  • We need much better, much more transparent engagement from the brands closest to GM. Monsanto have lost any shred of “benefit of the doubt”. We need one of the others (looking at you Bayer) to learn some lessons from what GSK are doing in their DCMA. I.e. to be brave enough to create utilitarian new business models and new collaborations to find the best way of realising the benefits of GM – and not treating it as a cash cow.

The future of food is a burning question. GM’s a really important part of that question. It can’t be reduced to a fight between good and evil. We need proper, calm, sober discussion leading to action. The brands in this space – the food brands, the grocers, the biotech – need to provide a bit of leadership and make this debate more open and more accessible.

Because ultimately this is about how we are going to live our lives – how we’re going to feed ourselves and the trade-offs we might have to make. And that matters.

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