The UK's Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is set on persuading EU officials to raise the UK ban on GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Aficionados of transgenic technology believe that plants that have been artificially enriched with vitamins and nutrients will make a great contribution towards diminishing world hunger and malnutrition. They also believe that crops which have been modified to require fewer pesticides and herbicides; that can tolerate drought, salt and extreme climates; that are disease resistant; and that can take up pollution from the soil, will fix a multitude of environmental problems.
The "new food" crops met with initial success. Monsanto, the world's largest seed company - whose own brand of herbicide is glyphosate-based Round-Up - launched their Round-Up-Resistant soybeans in1996. Needing only one application of the herbicide saved time and money and also reduced herbicide run-off.
But alarms bells began sounding when the weeds that the glyphosate was meant to kill began - like the GM crops themselves - to become resistant. Now, in the US, across 22 states, between 7 and 10 million acres of soybeans, maize and cotton have been affected. As the need for more and stronger herbicides and other remedial actions grow the threat to the environment and economy is obvious. Some US farmers have also experienced what they call Sudden Death Syndrome: the sudden failure of crops that had been planted where the previous season's crop had been killed off with glyphosate. There are also reports on the increase of weeds and bugs - 'superweeds' and 'superbugs' - that have become immune to herbicides and pesticides - like the pink bollworm in India's cotton fields and the corn rootworm in the US's Corn Belt.
The lack of long term research into this new technology makes these accounts disturbing and gives rise to a host of questions. How many plants and animals could be wiped out if pesticides and herbicides have to be increased? If GM salt-tolerant plants spread to salt marshes what will be the impact on the indigenous flora and fauna? What will be the impact on the animals that eat plants that have taken up pollutants from contaminated soil? Given that pollen is carried in the air and by insects, how is it possible to control 'genetic-drift' (cross-pollination)? How will natural genes be affected by GM plants over time; might they mutate, disappear or change in a way that could be harmful? Is it only a matter of time before all the world's crops contain GM traces? And what of human health?
When Arpad Pusztai fed GM-potatoes to rats he found that intestines and other organs had been damaged and that immune systems had become impaired. Some organs also showed evidence of pre-cancerous cells. These changes had shown up after 10 days of testing, equivalent to about a year in humans. Pusztai's findings - along with those of others researchers - are documented in "Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods" by Jeffrey M Smith.
Smith goes as far as to accuse the US Food and Drug Administration of providing inadequate evidence to back up their claims that GMOs are safe. He says that sample sizes were too low; that the animals tested were old and therefore less susceptible than young animals; that animal deaths and sickness were ignored; that GM components were diluted; and that the trials lasted too short a time.
As with the industrialisation of agriculture so with the monopolisation of patented, artificially modified genetic crops: working against nature to such an extreme degree does not work. It is these approaches to agriculture that have got us into the environmental fix we are in. Surely there has never been a stronger case for going back to farming in the tried, tested and more natural way. Control disease, weeds and bugs by rotation. Return animals to the land so that manure keeps the soil healthy, fertile and water-retentive. Encourage farmers to return to mixed farming, especially those in poorer countries who are in debt, locked into a system that obliges them to buy patented seeds. Rather than nutritionally enhanced monocrops aim for variety and a balanced diet.
The concerns about GM biotechnology are, it seems, similar to those engendered by nuclear accidents: after the immediate devastation comes the anxiety about the long term effects. The fallout associated with genetic engineering is involving us in a something which could be even more far reaching than radioactive pollution.
All over the world trust in the reliability of GM plants is waning. Mexico has banned GM maize. Peru has placed a moratorium on both importing and growing GMOs. Bolivia has committed to give up growing GM plants by 2015. China is changing to high-yield non-GMOs. Across Europe - where non-GM maize is proving to be higher yielding than its GM counterpart - GMO trials are coming to a stop.
Is it not puzzling that the UK's Environment Secretary wants to reverse the UK's ban on transgenic agriculture?