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 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Concerns with Transgenic Crops Continue in Europe

Crop and Soil Environmental News, December 1998

Charles Hagedorn
Extension Biotechnology Specialist

As the European Union moves countries in Europe ever closer together, substantial scientific and societal concerns have emerged over the transgenic crops. Such concerns are rarely expressed in the media in the U.S., where transgenic crops have been widely adopted in agriculture and generally accepted by consumers. As an example, the following article on the land management implications of growing genetically engineered crops appeared in the November 1998 Edition of 'European Alert', published by the European Society of Chartered Surveyors (ESCS). European Alert is distributed widely across Europe and within the European Commission.

Land Management Implications of Growing Generically Engineered Crops
Food is fast turning into a nightmare for the European Union (EU), and rightly so. The last thing that Europe's farmers need is a new generation of genetically engineered "super crops" claimed to produce higher yields with minimal husbandry, but which post-BSE European consumers will not buy. From the farmer's perspective the case for growing genetically modified (GM) crops rests largely on their ability to produce higher yields and margins. However, after two or three years of practical cropping experience in North America there is now evidence that some GM crops may actually be producing lower yields and margins than their conventional equivalents - certainly there is data to this effect in the case of soybean, oilseed rape and cotton.

Even if GM varieties in the EU perform better than those in the U.S. (we have yet to see), careful consideration needs to be given to the wide implications of their use. Because of consumer food safety concerns supermarkets may only wish to deal with GM-free farms. The consequential possibility of lost markets for GM growers and litigation with neighbors, landlords, banks, merchants and consumers is not something to be dismissed lightly. This is because there are a number of special practical problems associated with GM crops. First, in field and in store they look no different to traditional crops. Secondly, some GM crops are capable of cross-pollinating over 2.5 kilometers, so GM cropping on one farm may end up affecting the GM-free status of another. Thirdly, once GM crops have been grown on a farm, inherited modified genetic sequences in crop volunteers and related weed species are likely to persist on the farm even after the crop has been harvested and sold. In effect, once GM crops are grown, GM-free status could be lost on a permanent basis.

So what is the extent of the practical and financial consequences of potential GM land contamination? First, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will mean that farm gate prices will be much more dependent on market demand for agricultural products. It will no longer be easy to off-load products that the market does not want into intervention storage. Secondly, in the post Agenda 2000 scenario what the consumer wants and does not want suddenly becomes of critical importance to the farming industry. A MORI opinion poll in the UK, published in June 1998, revealed that 61% of UK consumers do not want to eat GM foods.

EU farmers should not feel they are missing out. The performance of some GM crops is collapsing so fast that U.S. agronomists now advise farmers not to grow more than 60% of their crops with GM built-in insecticide traits, for example. The previous year the recommendation was 80%. Is this technology sustainable, and who benefits from it? The debate is far from over. However, until it can be proved that GM food ingredients pose no threat to the health and safety of EU citizens, can any government afford to gamble with our futures?

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