British opposition to genetically modified crops is on the rise, prompting security concerns at research laboratories across the country.
Nearly all 54 U.K. pesticide-resistant crop trials attempted in the past eight years have been attacked, according to media reports. Protesters are destroying the experimental crops to prevent biotechnology companies from spreading genetically modified organisms (GMOs) more widely in Europe and the developing world.
As protests become more fierce in the United Kingdom and more accepted in other parts of the world, this mounting attention highlights stark differences in the acceptance of GMOs.
The research sites are the latest battlefield in the fight over GM crops. The biotechnology industry and several government leaders say the crops may provide the solution to global shortages in food supplies. Environmentalists say these promises are unfounded and that the crops instead encourage widespread chemical use that may threaten human and ecosystem health.
The alleged vandalism has drawn research to a near-halt in the United Kigndom. Only one trial remains after cyst-resistant potatoes were destroyed at Leeds University last month. In response, researchers are meeting environment minister Phil Woolas next month to discuss a secure research facility for the country's last remaining GM crop trial at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge.
European Union legislation requires research facilities to disclose the locations of GM trials to the public. Concerned researchers say such information has allowed anti-GM protesters to destroy these crops during the experimental phase. "We demand the academic freedom to gain knowledge, and a society that doesn't allow scientists to do that has got a problem," said Leeds University researcher Howard Atkinson at a media briefing. Consumer advocates responded that the public should be aware of field trial locations for health and environmental safety reasons.
Controversial Crops Gain Heat
Beyond the United Kingdom, anti-GMO opposition remains high in many regions. Some 200 South Koreans protested GM crops in May, and 300 Brazilian activists attacked a farm owned by global agribusiness company Monsanto, a developer of biotechnology products, in March. "The people who are responsible for the recent vandalism are acting criminally. Aside from impairing scientific research and damaging property, they are now putting innocent people at risk," said Garrett Kasper, public affairs manager with the company.
Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., said extreme protests are overemphasized by the media, in part due to efforts by the biotech industry to discredit the opposition. "The industry is very anxious that [unfavorable] facts don't get out there. One tactic is to tar any critic as irrational," he said. "It's really tough to get our viewpoints represented in the media."
The biotech industry says genetic modification produces crops that have higher yields and are better suited for pest control - advances it says will alleviate hunger in the developing world. Earlier this year, the United Nations' International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), in its sweeping report, agreed that overall crop productivity may improve - for instance through water-resistance. But the report also stated that information about biotech productivity has so far been "anecdotal and contradictory." New GM techniques are developing so rapidly that long-term assessments of environmental and health effects tend to lag behind discoveries, the report said.
Critics say the improvements have yet to be seen. "The biotech industry's claims about genetically altered crops are perennially overstated. In truth, agricultural biotechnology has almost nothing to offer to the world food crisis in the short term," said Margaret Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' food and environment program in a press release during the peak of this year's food crisis.
Instead, farmers now douse the landscape with herbicides in places where pesticide-resistant crops have become widespread, critics say. They point out that the most popular herbicide happens to be sold by Monsanto, the same company that patents most GM crops. In addition, opponents say, the spread of GM crops may lead to the creation of new food allergies and to the disruption of the ecological balance.
In its report, the IAASTD also concluded that concentrated biotechnology ownership has driven up the cost of seeds and forced developing nations to buy crops not adapted to their regions if they choose to acquire GM crops.
Developing World Plants More GMOs
Still, GM crops are on the rise. Farmers planted 114.3 million hectares (282.4 million acres) of biotech crops worldwide last year, an increase of 12 percent over 2006, according to the industry-supported International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
While most of this cultivation is consolidated in five countries (the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay), more countries are turning to GM crops as food prices rise. Chinese leaders said last month the country must urgently cultivate more high-yielding and pest-resistant biotech crops. Also last month, Malawi became the second African nation to approve GM crops.
Compared to the heated opposition in Great Britain, consumers in the United States generally lack concern about the growth in GM crops. As a result, U.S. environmentalists have not made the issue as much of a priority as in Europe. Freese, for example, works instead to avoid the spread of GM crops in the developing world. Friends of the Earth is among the leaders of the European anti-GMO movement, but the organization's U.S. chapter is focused more on anti-cloning efforts, said Gillian Madill, a genetic technology campaigner.
"When GMOs were developed in the U.S., we didn't know what was hitting us. It was in our food service before people understood what GMO meant," Madill said. "By the time GMOs became standard, we had no choice. We couldn't have labeling because it was already happening. By the time it got across the pond, in the UK... they had the advantage of seeing it happen here first."
In a Friends of the Earth report, the group says a shortage of rigorous, independent studies prevents consumers from understanding the potential benefits or dangers of GM crops. The field trials that were destroyed in Great Britain were financed by German biotechnology company BASF, leading critics to question the independence of the experiments. But the trial researchers say that if security risks continue, any rigorous research will become even more elusive than before.
Photo credit: Creative Commons License, posted by Flickr user Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
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