Scotland’s GM crop ban defies science, economics, and common sense
The Scottish Government has decided to ban all genetically modified crops from Scotland. Invoking recently adopted EU powers which allow devolved administrations to opt out of the more relaxed EU regime, Scottish Agriculture Minister, Richard Lochhead, declared that he was “concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand.”
Scottish agricultural produce is celebrated the world over, and rightly so. Scotland has nearly a dozen recognised food products protected under EU law including, among others, Stornoway black pudding, Orkney cheddar, Scotch lamb and of course, Scotch whisky. Obviously, the Scottish brand is important. The SNP argue that the Scottish “clean and green” brand is endangered by GM.
How do we grow crops now?
However headline grabbing the Government’s statement (and we all know the Agriculture minister’s fondness for headlines), banning GM crops in Scotland does not preserve “clean and green” agriculture. Richard Lochhead has erected a straw man argument. Take for example the humble Scottish potato – essential accompaniment to haggis on Burns night, the perfect partner in every haddock supper. The average Scottish potato will receive upward of ten chemical treatments to stave off potato blight (think Irish potato famine). Each treatment is a cost to farmers. Each treatment is an impact on the environment. Each application necessarily involves a tractor, fuel and labour costs, and it is repeated ten times. Traditional agriculture is heavily reliant on substantial chemical input to fertilise and protect from pests and disease. Now imagine a genetically modified, blight-resistant potato, no chemical treatments, no tractors, no fuel, no labour costs. Exactly which is the “clean and green” approach?
“Clean and Green” invokes the image of organic farming. Now, whilst organic farming is important, it is equivalent to only 2.4% of all agricultural land in Scotland. According to the Scottish Government’s own figures, the area of land organically farmed in Scotland actually fell last year by 8%. Almost all farmland in Scotland is worked by farmers who rely upon pesticides, herbicides fungicides and fertilisers to grow their crops, rear their livestock, all for the sole purpose of feeding us. And many of these farmers are on a knife-edge of profitability. A substantial proportion of a their income is spent on chemicals. Indeed it is not uncommon for the cost of the seed spray and fertiliser to actually outweigh the return on certain crops. This is just not sustainable and higher yielding and more disease resistant varieties are vital.
It is hardly surprising that farmers are speaking out. Scott Walker of the National Farmers Union condemned the Scottish governments “naive approach”. As he explains, “Decisions should be taken on the individual merits of each variety, based on science and determined by whether the variety will deliver overall benefit.”
So how stands the science? Step forward Anne Glover, until recently professor of molecular biology at Aberdeen University, former Chief Scientist to the Scottish Government, and late advisor to the President of the European Commission. She is clear and unequivocal: “The technology used to generate GM crops is safe – that is the scientific consensus.” She derides opposition to GMOs as “a form of madness.” Interestingly her position is shared by Stephen Tindale, former executive director of Greenpeace UK, who declared that he “had to speak out” because he believed the technology was safe and could help alleviate hunger in the developing world.
Whilst the Scottish Government has chosen to frame the debate in terms of Scottish consumers, it is worth considering the global dimension. Let’s welcome Norman Borlaug to the discussion. Norman Borlaug’s name is not well known, but it should be. He is often subtitled “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives”. His pioneering work in crop science was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Borlaug successfully manipulated different wheat genes, creating ‘miracle seeds,’ high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties which tripled crop yield. As his obituary noted: “He spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains”.
Countries such as India and Pakistan, which embraced his miracle seeds, dodged a widely predicted famine, becoming net exporters of cereals in the process. As the Nobel Committee declared when they awarded Borlaug the Peace Prize, “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world.”
Would the Scottish Government have banned this technology too? Who knows? As Prof Glover states, “It is not clear what evidence has been used to underpin Scottish Government’s decision to ban the growing of GM crops in Scotland.”
Borlaug’s ‘green miracle’ depended upon high doses of fertilisers. For Borlaug and for others it was a price worth paying to avert famine. As crop science races though the genetic age, the ambition is to reduce the dependence upon the chemistry set, to set the green revolution upon more sustainable foundations.
The role of Scottish crop research
Scotland is at the forefront of GM research. Hard to reconcile with the Scottish Government’s position but true nonetheless. The work of Scotland’s James Hutton Institute is world class. Indeed it is amongst the largest research institutes of any kind in the UK. The biting irony of the Scottish Government’s ban on GM crops is that this cutting edge research, developing seeds which could address global hunger, can continue – for the moment anyway – but pity help the scientists if they actually plant the seeds in Scottish soil.
Back to Prof Anne Glover: “A smart nation like Scotland with outstanding international scientific credentials should be harnessing knowledge to deliver sustainable farming with minimal impact on the environment. This seems like a missed opportunity for Scottish agriculture to use the best available – EU safety approved – technology to make Scotland a leader in world agriculture.”
What about the Scottish farmers?
There is no doubt that if the Scottish Government pursues its ban, and the rest of the UK don’t, then Scottish farmers will be disadvantaged. With farmers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reducing their dependance upon chemicals and the accompanying costs, their overheads will fall. Not so in Scotland.
Scottish farmers are having a tough time of it: one of the wettest summers on record, margins squeezed by supermarkets, concern over the SNP’s late payment of farm support, a Scottish Government computer system to register farm payments that is frankly not fit for purpose. Scottish farmers have never been under such pressure. Yet the Scottish Government has once again turned a deaf ear to the needs of farmers. It has ignored the advice of its former Chief Scientist, turned its back upon the GM research of Scottish institutions. In the final analysis the Scottish Government has determined that political expediency is more important than the challenges of feeding the planet and reducing farmers dependency upon chemicals. Or is it all just cementing the SNP-Green Party axis ahead of the Holyrood elections? Either way, welcome to ‘clean and green Scotland,’ where neither science nor the needs of farmers will get in the way of the SNP’s pursuit of a good headline.