GM issue remains a hard nut to crack

It could be argued that Irish farmers are striving to achieve production cost reductions with one arm tied behind their backs, given the iniquitous way in which the European Union (EU) continues to handle the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops.

The reality remains that the power-brokers in Brussels are still taking far too long to ratify new GM crop varieties.

Meanwhile, the zero tolerance regulations regarding the importation of uncertified GM crops into the EU continues to make life difficult for the Irish feed trade. If this status quo is retained, the consequences for our livestock sectors down the road could be horrendous.

Compare all of this with the news that American researchers are now using genetic manipulation to combat mastitis and a range of other animal diseases.

From an EU perspective this may well be regarded as a pretty scary development – although not an altogether surprising one. For one thing, it reflects the totally different attitude that exists towards genetic engineering in the US, compared with Europe.

Across the pond, it really is a case of anything goes.

Hardly a day goes by when one US research body or another is either announcing some form of breakthrough associated with genetic engineering or is seeking funds to carry out work of this type.

And all of this is taking place in the public domain, with little or no resistance coming from consumer or environmental pressure groups.

Contrast this with the public outcry in Europe over genetically modified sugar beet, oilseed rape and maize.

Vast sums of money have been spent over most of the last decade carrying out trials at secret locations in order to gauge the likely environmental impact of these crops.

Land-owners and farmers known to have acquiesced in this work have been publicly pilloried, with the result that the term ‘genetically modified’ is now synonymous with every negative image that one can conjure up – when it comes to food safety and wholesomeness.

Admittedly, the cause of those supporting genetic engineering in Europe has not been helped by the myriad of food scares that have come to light over the past 10 years.

As a result, genetic modification now ranks ‘proudly’ with BSE, Salmonella and Dioxins in the public’s all-time food safety scare list.

So where do we go from here?

Science must be the main driver when it comes to making decisions regarding the implementation of new technologies within agriculture – across the board.

The ‘green light’ given a number of years ago by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to allow Teagasc carry out GM potato trials at Oak Park was a step in the right direction. But only time will tell if this momentum will be maintained.

For the record, the Teagasc GM trial confirmed that the environmental impact of potato production can be reduced by 95% through the use of a GM blight-resistant potato in combination with a novel integrated pest management strategy.