GM opinion piece

Issued 30-7-2012



When people ask me about GM foods, I would usually start by asking them ‘if you own an allotment or have a vegetable garden and you are presented with 10kg of genetically modified potatoes and 10kg of regular Kerr Pinks; which bag would you set to feed yourself and your family?’.
Most people would consider the regular potatoes acceptable as the perception of the unknown is that it’s not worth the risk at present. So why is the discussion about GM foods taking place? GM Foods potentially offer the producer the possibility of low cost production and high yields. Consequently, this is meant to transfer onto the shop shelves as cheaper food for the consumer. This concept sounds laudable; except, in practice, it does not work. I’m approaching this argument both as a scientist and as a primary food producer. As a scientist, I worked in a lab back in the 1980s when PCR (the method of sequencing the genome of both animals and plants) was developed. I recognise that this is new technology and has a journey to travel before we fully understand all the consequences of our actions in manipulating the human or the plant genome. The genome is the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information, made up of a sequence of chromosomes; and their sequence determines everything about us from our hair colour to our height to our predisposition to diseases.
This is also true for plants and science is saying that if we take out the so-called bad sequence and replace it with a good sequence, our plants will produce more and will become less susceptible to disease. However, because this sequence is not in a long straight line but is a three-dimensional interconnected structure, if you alter one part of the genome it will interact differently with other parts of the genome in a structural way; thus affecting the whole genome as opposed to just the part that has been changed. What can happen is that huge side-effects can occur based on small alterations to the sequence. Plant breeders, for years, have been breeding out bad characteristics and encouraging better yields through natural methods; however, GM attempts to short circuit this process, but with very limited controls – limited by our lack of depth of knowledge in this area.

OK – enough of the science. My perception of this as a primary food producer also introduces another interesting argument. The motivation for the promoters of GM is to make significant profits for themselves. Their aims are not to improve the lot of the primary producer and/or the householder. If GM potatoes were introduced in the morning we would see extra tonnage but the price per tonne of the product paid to the primary
producer would fall. However, this margin would not be transferred on to the consumer. Only two years ago, when potato production exceeded demand, boat loads of potatoes were exported to Russia at a loss by the producers to stave off financial ruin. So the argument of extra production, at this point in time, beggars belief. There is no direct correlation between an increase in production and increased income for the primary producer and reduced cost to the consumer. I exited milk production in 1991 and, at the time, I was receiving approximately £1 a gallon; which is the equivalent to 28c a litre. Remarkably, 21 years later, this is exactly the same price that dairy farmers are getting for their milk. How can this be, when the price of milk to the consumer has increased by 25%? The stagnation in the price for the primary producer is mind-boggling as, in those last 21 years, the cost of regulation, inputs, etc. have all gone up exponentially – and yet the primary producer is still producing for the same price they got 21 years ago. Most of this has been possible because of increased scale of production, better genetics; however, there is a limit as to how far this can be brought. Sadly, this is also reflected in the statistics which now show that many farmers can no longer make a living directly from their products but rely on subsidies to keep their operations afloat.

As an island nation which exports 90% of all of its produce, Ireland is in a unique position. The standards and traceability which we have nurtured over the past 20 years are the envy of the entire food producing world. Currently, we produce and fill 16% of the world infant milk formula market; which is an outstanding achievement. If we move to a GM status,
I cannot see how this will enhance our green image and it may put at risk the competitive advantage we have as a food producing nation. If increased food production is what we need as a country, then a concerted effort must be made to get every acre producing to its potential right across the country. Far too much land is being left idle or semi-idle and it strikes me that we need to get our country up to full production naturally, before we consider any fundamental change such as GM. In conclusion, it is not that I am ideologically opposed to genetically modified production. It is that, at this moment in time, we do not require its services and, in my informed opinion, we do not yet know enough about the potential consequences of genetically modified food. As the world’s population is increasing and has passed the 7bn threshold, we need to be mindful that large corporations who deal in commodities such as food will be very anxious to gain a stranglehold on this market. I feel we must never allow any private consortium to gain control of world food production, as both food and water are more powerful than any weapon that has yet been invented. I say this, mindful of the fact that, in the early years of GM foods, companies involved in GM research were discussing the benefit of a restrictor gene. This would have resulted in crops producing seed which could not be successfully
re-set in the ground unless treated with a chemical to deactivate the restrictor gene. This is a frightening concept as, in the wrong hands, it could result, not in plentiful global food production, but in famine.

Tampering with food production by legislators and officials can often lead to a result that is the diametric opposite of the intention. Only a few years ago, European authorities took it upon themselves to restructure sugar, as production was considered to be too high. A predicted price of €400 per tonne was promised, along with huge reductions in price for
the consumers; In Ireland, this was wholeheartedly embraced. We lost our sugar industry to profiteering which had a mixture of all of the elements of what went wrong in our country – over-zealous property speculation, completely unrealistic promises of new towns and a vaguely offered brighter future. All of which evaporated. The reality today is that 4,000 people have lost some or all of their living. Sugar prices have increased dramatically and companies who once had a guaranteed supply of sugar now find that this commodity is so scarce to source that it is threatening their viability as a business.

As a person who spends a lot of my free time gardening, you learn to appreciate food and food production. We have come out of an era of cheap money, cheap oil and cheap food; when, in reality, none of these actually existed. We have seen money becoming dear and non-existent, we have seen oil, which we have become ridiculously dependant on, becoming scarcer and dearer; and the very promise of cheap food is strangling us economically and forcing us to take routes of production which we naturally would not
choose. Ireland is different to a lot of countries in the world in that, not only is it self-sufficient in food production – it also exports vast quantities of food. Our legacy as legislators must be to build on the shoulders of the custodians of our countryside who have provided us with an unspoiled and highly productive landscape which we must pass on to the next generation, whilst providing these people with a decent standard of living.