American consumers are beginning to discover, as Europeans did back in the late 1990s, that most of their processed food contains GM ingredients; this coincides with US farmers starting to fall out of love with the technology.
America's GM backlash should give Britain food for thought
The Guardian, 16 Jan 2014
* American consumers and farmers are rejecting a technology they once embraced. Let's not make the same mistakes.
The election of a leftwing mayor in New York is not the only thing changing in the US after decades of pro-big business policies. Genetically modified crops and food have had an easy ride in the US, with no official safety testing, thanks to the influence of GM companies on the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Most US consumers say they want genetically modified food labelled (it isn't) and believe that they don't eat GM food (they do). November popular ballots to require GM food to be labelled were narrowly defeated in California (in 2012) and Washington state (2013).
But the furor created by these ballots, and the huge sums spent by chemical and large food businesses to defeat them ($46m in California) have ignited the first popular debate in the US about genetic modification since the technology was introduced in the late 1990s. Two states have passed, and about 20 others are considering, GM labelling laws.
Now, the first mainstream US food company has removed GM from a popular range. General Mills has started producing Cheerios free of GM. This makes the 73-year-old breakfast cereal one of the highest-profile American brands to drop GM ingredients. Overall, sales of certified non-GM products are growing, from $1.3bn to $3.2bn between 2001 and 2013.
American consumers are beginning to discover, as Europeans did back in the late 1990s, that most of their processed food contains GM ingredients. This coincides with US farmers starting to fall out of love with the technology. In the UK, we are constantly told that GM must work "because American farmers carry on growing GM crops". This has been a constant refrain of our strongly pro-GM secretary of state for environment, Owen Paterson. In fact, US farmers have faced problems with GM crops for nearly 15 years. Now the problems are so great that growers there are starting to desert GM.
Over 80% of all GM crops are grown in just four countries in North and Latin America, with over 40% coming from the US. Farmers who want to stop find it difficult to return to non-GM cropping because the GM seeds persist in their soil. Farmers that face that problem, or other GM contamination, risk being sued by seed companies for infringing GM patents. For years it has been easier to carry on with the modified crops than try and stop. But now, in the fields of Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Delaware, and elsewhere, Owen Paterson's GM dreams are being confronted by 6ft-high, GM-resistant horse's tail – a weed of farmers' nightmares. These and other weeds have become resistant to all the usual weedkillers.
The most widely grown GM crops in America are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup, a weedkiller that used to be sprayed in some fields just after harvest, to kill all plants, including any remaining crops, before reseeding. But as thousands of square miles were planted with crops engineered to resist Roundup, and Roundup was sprayed on all the crops to kill the weeds, often more than once, this provided an amazing opportunity to the small number of weed plants that were resistant. Within just a few years, GM farmers found that weeds that were resistant to Roundup were spreading everywhere – the area affected by resistant weeds has risen from 32.6 million acres in 2010 to 61.2 million in 2012. As a result, the use of weedkillers in the US increased by over 25% between 2001 and 2010. The only response that farmers have is to use several different weedkillers as well as Roundup, in the hope of finding something that will work.
To make matters worse, non-GM maize and soya crops are now starting to yield better crops, partly because new non-GM varieties can be developed faster than GM ones. US farmers are now also getting a premium for non-GM, because of the demand from countries like Japan, South Korea and the European Union.
Little wonder then that US farmers are starting to desert GM. A company selling non-GM maize seed in Indiana has seen business double every year for the past four years, and they expect non-GM maize to regain 20% of the market in the next five years – until now, 90% of US maize has been GM.
In the light of this backlash, will pro-GM campaigners now urge British farmers to avoid GM seeds and crops with the same enthusiasm that they have urged us to embrace the technology over the past 15 years? Don't hold your breath.