Genetically modified crops are a divisive issue everywhere it seems, from Tanzania to Australia to here in the United States. For Europe in particular though, the issue has become incredibly complex and marred by political deadlock. A great example of this is DuPont Pioneer’s GM crop maize 1507, which was submitted for approval in 2001 by DuPont, and did not receive a judgment until yesterday, November 6, 2013. After twelve years, the European Commission proposed to allow maize 1507 to be grown in the EU. That would make it only the third GM crop to be approved for cultivation in the EU.
The European Union’s member states remain passionately divided over the issue of genetically modified crops, with nations like Greece and Austria vehemently opposing their use while countries like Spain and the Netherlands are much more receptive. Now that maize 1507 has been authorized for use by the European Commission, the Council of Ministers has three months to get a majority rejection before the Commission is able to give final approval for use. Health commissioner Tonio Borg has called on the member states to approve a previous reform proposal, which would make sweeping decisions like this valid, but still allow individual member states to ban the crop’s use in their own country. This reform proposal, originally suggested in 2010, was seen as legally questionable and may move the EU’s process away from a unified economy and more towards nationalized economics, which is kind of what they were trying to avoid when they designed the EU in the first place.
It is obnoxiously difficult to talk about genetically modified anything these days, especially food. The conversation is inevitably wrapped up in impenetrable layers of rhetoric on both sides, and no one seems terribly keen on listening to anyone else (although I guess that’s true of most any political or social issue these days). Truth be told, it’s hard to trust any information when it comes to GM crops. Most anywhere you look it’s clear the information you are being provided with is heavily weighted towards one side: either GM crops are evil and dangerous and the products of soulless corporations bent on exploiting the earth’s natural beauty or they are the food of the future, genetically designed by good looking geniuses to give you everything you need, protect themselves from pests and weeds, and end global poverty and hunger. It is very possible that these crops could help reduce costs and increase harvests, but it is also very possible that they will create superweeds, harm native insect populations as pesticides are used more widely, or carry serious health concerns as more modifications allow more toxic herbicides and pesticides to be used. Given that GM crops have the potential to actually do some real good, it’s incredibly disappointing to see objectivity lost in favor of either reactionary fear-mongering or corner-cutting profit margins. Is it too much to ask for just one legitimate political conversation? I don’t think so. The closest thing I’ve found to some in-depth disinterested coverage of the issue is here. It’s a fair amount to read but if you’re interested it’s good.
GM crops do in fact have the potential to lower costs and increase profits for struggling farmers and even have positive environmental impacts. According to an industry-funded study by PG Consulting, the introduction of herbicide-tolerant cotton saved 15.5 million kilograms of herbicide between 1996 and 2011. A study by Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at Georg August University in Göttingen, found that harvest yields grew by 24% per acre and farmers’ profits increased by 50% from 2002 to 2008 in 533 farming households from central and Southern India when Bt cotton, a pest resistant strain, was introduced to the market (both of these studies, from PG and Matin Qaim’s work, are cited and given more detail in the Nature article from before). GM crops could do some good. Yes, we will have to do a lot of work to make sure they are safe for use, regardless of how much extra that will cost their manufacturers. That’s just how it will have to be if we really want to see what benefits these crops can give us. But just because corporations suck doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give this technology a chance.