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GM: Breaking the stalemate

23-Jun-2008
Last updated on 28-Jul-2009 at 11:47 GMT

Food industry voices are joining those of politicians in the GM debate, hailing the controversial technology as the answer to the food supply crisis. But the hearts and minds of consumers must still be won.

Peter Brabeck, chairman for Nestle, has called loudly for Europe to reassess its GM policy to help combat the dwindling food supplies and soaring commodity prices. And he is not the only food industry big-wig to take this stance. Ian Ferguson, chairman for Tate & Lyle and president of the UK's Food and Drink Federation has long been a GM advocate, hoping to foster fair debate on the rapidly progressing technology. Last week it was the turn of the politicians. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Britain should step up its GM acceptance, encouraging the end to the zero tolerance on feed shipments, which currently sees entire batches containing traces of GM material sent back. On a European level, opinion is divided among member states, leading to inconsistencies and slow approval processes. While some hail GM as the answer, current decisions on certain GM materials are not upheld by some countries. Since the first approval of GM maize 10 years ago, there are still countries refusing to grow it, and it remains the only crop cultivated in Europe. Europe was accused of breaking international trade rules as a result, following a case brought by leading GMO producers Argentina, Canada and the US to the World Trade Organisation under claims their farmers were losing millions because of the EU. Europe was given a deadline to comply with its trade obligations. This deadline has still not been met. Furthermore, while research is leading to a second generation of GM crops with improved functionality, first generation GM products are still meeting barriers. There is currently a backlog of 30 or 40 products waiting for approval in Europe. As big businesses have been renowned for holding sway with politicians in the past, it remains to be seen whether growing industry support could affect decisions in the GM arena - stepping up approval processing and bringing countries in line. However, at the same time, consumers hold sway with food companies. And at the moment, consumers are erring on the side of caution. Studies have found genetic modification leads to higher yields, which in turn could feed the world and bring down food prices, GM supporters say. It's a valid and convincing argument. Yet the counter argument seems just as strong. Green campaigners cite equally compelling studies that show GM does not lead to higher yields at all. In fact, some studies show they do quite the opposite. Additionally, while areas such the US and Asia Pacific have more fully embraced the use GM without suffering any health or environmental problems so far, there are fears the long term effects will not be seen for decades. No wonder consumers remain confused and cautious. Some GM detractors say it is not even a question of there not being enough food being produced to feed the world. What needs to change is the nature of the food economy. Yet, like it or loathe it, GM is now a part of the highly complex food economy. While the debate seems to have reached a stalemate, with both sides arguing their corner convincingly, it seems clear it is not an issue that will go away and we need to move on. What is needed is a compromise - an acceptance that GM could hold some answers, but it is not the only solution to the global food crisis, and it must progress with caution and under constant monitoring. A total mental block on any possible benefits to be derived from GM is not helpful, and could result in the baby being thrown out of the bathwater. Meanwhile, businesses must be careful not to present GM as a panacea. To do so would detract from other issues affecting supply that need to be addressed urgently, like fixing trade inequalities for example, and could open them up to allegations of placing cheap and abundant raw materials before consumer interests. Laura Crowley is a reporter specialising in the food industry, with a Masters degree in journalism. If you would like to comment on this article, please email laura.crowley'at'decisionnews.com.

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