Ignorance and GM crops
Genetically modified crops are important for all Irish farmers — but maybe not for the obvious reasons.
The row over EPA permission for a two-and-a-half acres Teagasc research trial of genetically modified potatoes in Co Carlow passed over the heads of Irish farmers — other than our 1% who are organic farmers.
Engrossed as they are in recovering from the damage caused by a wet summer, and with the grain harvest, the public debate over a GM potato experiment didn’t register with many Irish farmers.
They’re not interested because no GM crop suitable for them to grow has ever been authorised by the EU — and there is no sign of that situation being reversed.
Many farmers also missed a news warning in mid-July that Ireland and the EU could lose a third of its livestock industry.
But it is this threat which is central to the reality of genetic modification for the vast majority of Irish farmers.
The warning came from Jack Bobo, previously the US State Department’s Senior Adviser for Biotechnology, and currently a senior biotechnology adviser to Hilary Clinton in the State Department.
For most of the past decade, he has been involved in the US mission summed up in 2008 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as follows.
"Agricultural biotechnology has great potential to help address the challenges of food insecurity and rural economic development.
To realise this potential, and to protect the interests of US farmers and exporters, we seek to promote understanding of the technology and encourage the adoption of fair, transparent, and science-based policies and practices in other countries."
Although there are no GM crop growing opportunities for Irish farmers, they are major users of the many GM crops grown outside the EU which have been authorised for import, mostly used for industrial use or animal feed.
About 98% of animal feed imported to Ireland contains GM products, and it has been labelled as such since 2003.
This is infinitely more important for Irish farmers than GM potato experiments — and it is under threat, due to anti-GM sentiment in the EU.
Mr Bobo was speaking at a conference in University College Dublin examining the differences between EU and US experiences on GM crops.
He warned that Ireland’s agri-food sector and the overall Irish economy are set to lose out by failure to embrace genetically modified (GM) technology.
He acknowledged strong reliance on imported animal feeds, most notably soybean-based products from the Americas, is where Irish farming depends on GM.
He hinted that the EU looks set to be left behind by its reluctance to embrace the new technologies, because GM companies may turn their backs, and look instead to countries such as Brazil and China, where there are rapid developments in GM technologies.
"We’re expecting Brazil to increase its GM product output by 40% by 2019, as it stands, we’re expecting the EU to increase its GM product output by less than 4%.
The day is coming where the EU will fall so far behind that they will not bother submitting to Europe because there are other markets," he said.
He said that after the EU lifted its moratorium on approvals of GM products in 2004, there were 40 products awaiting clearance for use (mostly for animal feed).
Today that figure stands at 70. If there were no new applications for approval, he said, it would still take 10 years to clear the pipeline.
He’s not expecting a movement in the short term.
As a "cheerleader" for agricultural biotechnology, he cannot be taken as a fully objective source when warning that the rest of the world is catching up with Europe, and will overtake it, in terms of trade activity.
However, his warning became more worrying when Irish livestock feed industry representatives at the UCD Conference took Bobo’s warning seriously.
The Irish Grain and Feed Association (IGFA) backed his calls for a more open approach in Ireland to GM technologies — or Irish farmers would ultimately be hit in the pocket, they said.
"We’re looking at a very expensive period in terms of feed imports," said Deirdre Webb of the IGFA.
"We were recently in America and in the space of a month, our suppliers were looking for $80 more per ton for feed.
It’s the expectation of the IGFA and our members that prices will skyrocket.
There needs to be a long-term strategy to GM products, we cannot survive with the current situation.
"We need a faster, more streamlined and predictable approach to approvals of GM technologies by the EU.
It’s staggering to think what farmers will now have to pay for feed now due to blocks on maize by the EU. How can they walk us into this scenario time and time again?"
Irish farmers are not worried about opposition to them growing GM crops.
The big problem for them is that the EU’s restrictive approach to importing animal feed made from GM crops is starving European livestock farmers.
Combined with the US drought causing severe market difficulty on the supply side, restricting feed imports will inevitably put some intensive EU livestock farmers out of business this winter.