Why the European Parliament position on GM crops is a basketcase


Groucho Marx, he of grease paint moustache, cigar and stooped walk, was something of a philosopher, albeit an irreverent one. Groucho on friendship: ‘When you’re in jail, a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, ‘Damn, that was fun’.’  Groucho on life: ‘I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it.’ Beat that Arthur Schopenhauer.  And my favourite Groucho line, proving its relevance again this week:

‘These are my principles… if you don’t like them I have others.’

Today the European Parliament voted to permit the use of genetically modified food and feed for livestock, removing any prospect of national veto. The majority was clear: 502.  Contrast this with the vote in April when by a majority of 480 to 159, the Parliament voted to allow member states to ban genetically modified crops for human consumption. (To date over half EU member states have exercised this right). So, to be clear, the EU accepts the necessity of feeding GM crops to the animals we eat, but baulks at the prospect of allowing people to eat food produced with GM crop strains.  The arguments about GMO entering the food chain have become a lot less clear.

In some ways it was lucky that science was not invoked to support either position, since the contradiction is self-evident. If GM crops pose a risk to the health of mankind, then surely the same crops pose a similar risk to the health of animal-kind.  We are all mammals after all, with over 90% of genetic code in common. Of course scientists have commented on the GM debate. Amid the din and the clamour of protest, there is a scientific consensus.  As former EU Chief Scientist, Prof. Anne Glover stated, ‘to keep on saying that we don't have enough evidence or that there might be some kind of unforeseen negative consequence of using this [GM] technology … is simply not the case.’

So why has the European Parliament chosen to adopt a position on GM feed for animals so at odds with its position on GM crops for humans? Why have the MEPs who asserted the morality of banning GM crops for human consumption suddenly become strangely quiet?

The ‘official’ answer is as ludicrous as it is tendentious. It is now being widely stated by MEPs who ‘changed their mind’ and voted to allow GM in animal feed that because there was no Commission ‘impact assessment’ accompanying the proposal, they were unable to determine the validity of the proposal and so had to support it.  The technical term for this argument is: ‘bollox’.

The real answer is more straightforward. Almost two-thirds of all EU livestock is fed with GM-modified feedstuff. In Scotland the figure is 90%.  Banning GM feedstuff would have a simple consequence: most of Europe’s livestock would starve.  There is simply not enough non-GM feed to fill the gap.

How quickly the moral principles have been shuffled to the back of the deck.  As Groucho said, ‘These are my principles, and if you don’t like them I have others.’

I hold the view that our position on GM should be informed by science. To hear the First Minister of Scotland confess that she hadn’t even sought the views of Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Agriculture was deeply troubling. What is the point of a chief scientist if you do not consult them on chief science issues?  SNP MEPs were quick to jump on the anti-GM bandwagon. How stand they now on the GM feed for animals? Is it a matter of principle, or do they perhaps have other principles to offer?

Perhaps Groucho’s greatest performance was as Rufus T. Firefly, Prime Minister of Freedonia.  In a memorable scene Groucho is presented with the battle plans for a proposed war with neighbouring Sylvania. He proclaims, ‘A child of five could understand this…. Send someone to fetch a child of five.’

The position of the European Parliament’s on GM crops is a basket case. Perhaps it is time to summon the child of five because it is self-evident that no one else could understand what MEPs are up to.