18 September 2002

'Economic disaster' warning over GM crops

By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent

Genetically modified crops have been an "economic disaster" in America, costing £8 billion in lost profits and higher subsidies since 1999, according to a report published yesterday.

The study by the Soil Association raises questions over the future of GM crops in Britain, currently undergoing their final round of farm-scale trials before the Government consults on their introduction.

According to the report, called Seeds of Doubt, almost every benefit claimed for GM crops did not stand up to examination. Farmers reported lower yields, continued dependency on chemical sprays and widespread GM contamination of non-GM and organic crops, which in turn damaged exports.

Based on interviews with academics, advisers, farmers and industry analysts in North America, it said that GM crops had delivered few, if any, of the economic benefits promised to farmers.

Growing GM herbicide-resistant soya and insect-resistant maize was found to be less profitable than growing natural varieties because of the higher costs of GM seed and the lower market prices for GM crops.

About £400 million a year has been wasted after almost the entire North American exports of maize and rape to the European Union were lost following the introduction of GM varieties, the report said.

About £6.5 billion had been handed out in farm subsidies over the past three years in America for maize and Soya because of low prices caused by loss of trade due to GM crops, the report estimated. Contamination had also cost an estimated £1 billion in lost foreign trade, while one particular product recall left a bill of about £600 million.

Three quarters of the world's GM crops are grown in America and Canada. But following problems with GM Soya and maize, more than 200 groups representing farmers and the organic sector in the two countries are calling for a moratorium on the introduction of GM wheat, the next proposed crop.

Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association, said the report should act as a warning to the Government, which will make a decision next year whether to allow GM crops to be grown commercially in Britain.

"With agriculture still suffering a deep economic crisis, the temptation to seize a new technology is great," he said. "Growing GM crops in the UK will undermine the competitiveness of British agriculture."

An EU report leaked earlier this year found that the costs of keeping GM and non-GM crops separate would often be too high to make commercial planting of GM crops economically feasible. On Monday, the National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy, an American group funded by the biotechnology industry and the American government, painted a different picture of GM crops in America, saying that in 2001, GM crops of soya-bean, maize, cotton, papaya, squash, and oilseed rape produced an extra 1.8 million tons of food and fibre on the same acreage.

The report said GM crops had improved farm income by £973 million and reduced
pesticide use by 21,000 tons. A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "If GM crops are approved it can be assumed that farmers will not grow them unless they see some benefit to themselves, and unless there is a market for what they are producing.

"The Government recognises that consideration needs to be given to the terms on which GM crops might co-exist with conventional and organic production; this is another issue that we expect to be considered as part of the GM debate."