There was a period during my time as Conservation Director when a topical blog would have been dominated by the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops. Over the last two years they have hardly had a mention - although you may be interested in this piece of historical commentary.
But, I would imagine my successor may have to devote some time to this issue. The emphasis on increasing production, rather than reducing consumption or waste, makes any new technology seem attractive if it promises the Earth. The RSPB does not have a philosophical problem with GM technology per se - we don't see GM crops as being evil - but nor do we think that just because they are 'new' and 'scientific' then they are necessarily good.
I would love to see a GM crop ready for commercial release that delivered real yield benefits for farmers and real environmental benefits too. I haven't seen one yet and they don't seem to be on the horizon either.
I wonder whether the development of GM crops that deliver great benefits for humankind is likely to derive from the commercial world or perhaps more likely from government-funded international collaboration. As I understand it, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer et al. are there to make money rather than deliver wider public benefits. If we believe that there is a real prospect that GM crops might significantly alleviate hunger then shouldn't their development be a suitable subject for government funding - perhaps from the international aid budget?
Any GM crops should be closely tested before commercial release to assess their environmental impacts. I think the environmental harm of GM crops has been exagerrated in the past but that doesn't mean that they are without danger in the future.
I can't help but feel that this subject will come back strongly in the next few years, clothed in the issue of food security and world hunger. My advice would be to treat the predictions of environmental benignity with some scepticism (although not mindless hostility) and also treat the promises of high yields with some scepticism too. However, it is the farmer who should beware that he (or she) isn't buying a poor crop, it is we the public who should beware that we are not allowing environmentally harmful crops to be grown in our countryside.
Getting away from crops just for a minute Mark, one thing that GM could really help with is the development of ways to reduce methane emissions from livestock; this would enable cows to eat food other than ensiled maize and grass eg wildflowers and even heather - without emitting the additional methane that ensues from them eating this "less efficient" food; and might help reduce abandonment of the uplands, and further intensification of lowland grasslands (if indeed that is possible).
GM is a big money making machine and I wouldn't trust anyone that puts making money first, making platitudes that there's nothing to worry about.
Jockeyshield - spot on! It's farming by another name and like Badgers all must be exterminated without question to support it.. - well that's the view of some anyway.
Hi Jockeyshield - and here am I thinking it's only the RSPB management that's off its collective rocker !!
As you say Mark. I think we have to address this whole issue of GM crops. Do they actually increase yields significantly and are they harmful to the environment? It is obviously very important that there is thorough testing of these things by independent government sponsored groups. These groups must not be just "a series of Government experts" but must include proper qualified scientists from, say, the RSPB, Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife so that a full range of environmentally interested parties has the opportunty to participate in judgements. We certainly cannot take the GM producers word(s) for it that GMs are safe and not harmful to the environment, because, in a famous phrase used some time ago, though in a different context and very slightly amended, "they would say that wouldn't they". It is therefore very important that NGOs do participate in judging GM trials etc. Mindless opposition would just serve to isolate an important part of the community and risk, actually, bad judgements if left to just the "Government experts".
Trimbush - 'allowing environmentally harmful wildlife to be grown in our countryside' you must mean Pheasants and Red legged partridge. Yes, i agree. The amount of wildlife that has to be killed to support such introductions is a disgrace. Don't get me onto Red Grouse and its mono culture or we will be here all night.
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