by Mike Hutchinson
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have recently voted for a change in the rules governing the growing of GM crops in Europe.
Although needing final approval from the EU council, this change will allow member states to opt to plant any GM seeds that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). However, states can still ban single GM crops, providing that the evidence on which the ban rests does not go against the EFSA's opinion.
So where does this leave those of us who advocate a true sustainable approach to agriculture?
It's probably reasonable to assume that most permaculture practitioners are opposed to GMOs. Not in the Ludditist, anti-science way that the GM agro-industry and some scientists feel, but because we think there are other - and probably better - ways of farming.
A move from an EU-wide ban on GM crops to one where individual member states can decide does weaken the situation.
|Original image: PL Tandon|
Some states, such as France and Germany, may choose to continue to ban GM crops. Others - the United Kingdom, for example - have governments that look more favourably on this form of biotechnology. And, it is thought, new GM crops could be planted somewhere in Europe as early as 2016. The only GM crop currently cultivated on a commercial scale in Europe is maize (MON 810), which has been modified to protect it against the European corn borer, but there are others in the 'regulatory' pipeline.
Of course, environmentalists and probably most permaculture practitioners have concerns about the wider implications of such transgenic crops.
The EFSA recommends 'buffer' zones between GM and conventional plants, but campaigners feel the UK's distance of 200 metres is too small to be effective.
|Confocal micrograph of Bacillus subtilis, found in soil.|
Original image: Wellcome Images
While the spread of ‘transgenic genes’ into neighbouring areas, with unforeseen consequences, remains a concern, it isn’t the only one. Many GMOs have been developed to be especially tolerant of pesticides and herbicides. Heavy applications of these may guarantee farmers a decent crop - for some time - but will take a toll of other life, including micro-organisms in the soil.
However, evolution being what it is, it isn’t long before pests begin to develop tolerance towards the chemicals and increasingly higher doses are then required. This, of course, isn’t a problem for the biotech giants as they are developing and selling both the GMOs and the pesticides and herbicides. A win-win situation for the companies, but not for anyone else, including farmers.
But will the biotechnology giants such as Monsanto or Dupont be aggressively pushing GMOs in Europe? Monsanto spokesman, Brandon Mitchener, told Chemistry World  that he didn't expect to see new biotech crops being planted in Europe in the coming decade because the investment in time and money was too great.
A related debate is going on about the Transatlantic free trade deal, known as TTIP. Campaigners have applied a significant amount of pressure on this and the EU's agricultural commissioner, Philip Hogan, has pledged that the EU would continue to label products containing GM foodstuffs, something the biotech industry is opposed to.
At present it's not easy to see what, in practice, will result from the new GM rules. The situation - for those opposed to GMOs - has certainly been weakened, and biodiversity could be under a greater pressure than before. If this is indeed the thin end of the biotech wedge, then permaculture needs to respond by continuing to campaign strongly for truly sustainable farming that serves the interests of growers, consumers and the earth itself.
For research on permaculture approaches to growing, see our Research Digest.