GM-Free Wales -- Admirable Aspiration of Misguided Fantasy?
The University of Glamorgan
The potential for a "GM-free Wales" is becoming an increasingly important policy objective of the National Assembly of Wales, particularly in light of the decision of the EU parliament, on 2nd July 2003, to allow the import and sale of GM food products provided that they are clearly labelled.
As a contribution to this debate, Dr Denis Murphy of the Biotechnology Unit at the University of Glamorgan has compiled a detailed report on the concept of a "GM-free Wales".
The main conclusions of Dr Murphy's report are:
The GM-free Welsh Environment campaign was launched in July 1999, with the support of many Assembly Members (AMs), including the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives and was publicly backed at the highest levels:
The concept of a GM-free Wales has been promoted by a number of anti-GM campaigners, however, as Dr Murphy's report points out, local self-declared GM-free zones may be regarded as a mechanism for registering or publicising a protest against such crops but would have no legal or scientific basis.
The only Welsh crops that are realistic candidates for the introduction of GM varieties within the next few years are oilseed rape, maize and possibly fodder beet. The conclusion in the report is that Wales is an extremely small producer of arable crops and, when potential GM crops are considered, any Welsh contribution would be tiny.
This may be seen at first sight as an argument in favour of a GM-free Wales. After all, if so little of Welsh agriculture is devoted to potential GM crops like maize, oilseed rape and fodder beet, surely their elimination will have hardly any effect on the rest of Welsh agriculture?
However, the fact that Wales produces so few arable crops also means that the introduction of GM maize, oilseed rape and fodder beet will have little or no effect on other sectors of agriculture.
As Dr Murphy points out, neither the recently published National Assembly report on organic farming policy in Wales, nor the Minister's response to the report, has any mention of GM crops. This is despite the oft-quoted pronouncements of dire consequences for organic farming that will inevitably follow from the introduction of GM crops.
"Of more general concern than the small organic sector is the potential impact of GM crops on the Welsh environment as a whole," says Dr Murphy, "Especially as the environment is arguably one of the key national assets in Wales."
However, his report surmises that rather than being solely hazardous to the environment, GM crops can also enable farmers to implement environmentally friendly practices like zero-tilling or integrated weed management in their fields.
The caveat that Dr Murphy adds is that these GM crops might lead to the emergence of herbicide tolerant weeds if they out-crossed with weedy relatives and use of Bt crop varieties may increase likelihood of the emergence of resistant insects.
Subsequently, the conclusion to which Dr Murphy arrives is that there will be very little, if any effect on Welsh agriculture, whether conventional or organic, from creating a GM-free Wales.
Many people have concerns about the impact of GM food but Dr Murphy argues that a GM-free Wales will make no difference to such worries. This is because, for the vast majority of Welsh people, virtually all their food is imported from outside Wales.
The removal of a few hundred hectares of potential GM maize or oilseed rape will have no material effect on organic farmers, who will continue to import their animal feed from outside Wales as they do now.
There is no prospect of any other commercial GM crops that could be grown in Wales for many years to come. Therefore, Dr Murphy argues that it is difficult to see how a GM-free status could be used in any promotional or marketing exercise for Welsh produce that would have any real meaning or scientific validity.
"If one were to draw up a balance sheet of the potential risks and benefits of the major environmental issues that we face in Wales, the possible adverse effects of GM crops would be far less serious than any of the other more immediate and threatening challenges, such as the consequences of overstocking of sheep and the rampant, unchecked spread of alien species" claims Dr Murphy.
"Although a "GM-free Wales" is extremely unlikely in reality, it remains a popular slogan with some sections of the public. "GM-free Wales" is also vigorously promoted by some very active pressure groups."
"Agriculture, biotechnology and GM crops are complex issues that have the potential to affect our daily lives, especially our food and the environment, in which we live and work. As such, these issues deserve detailed reflection, discussion and consultation leading to informed and considered decision-making, based on the best available information and in the best interests of the people of Wales."
Issued by The University of Glamorgan