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Lord Peter Melchett on GMOs

Par Lord Peter Melchett
Publié par Clifford Armion le 11/12/2010
Lord Peter Melchett was a whip in James Callaghan's Labour Party and later became minister of state for Northern Ireland. He was appointed Executive Director of Greenpeace UK in 1989 and he has been Policy Director at the Soil Association since 2002. He was invited by Libération to tackle the issue of GMOs.

A transcript of Lord Peter Melchett's opening remarks

My problem with GMOs is not that I am against science. None of the organisations that campaign against GMOs have opposed the use of GM technology in medicine for example. There is now a strong move to support a crop breeding technology called marker assisted selection which allows you to use our knowledge of the DNA to inform conventional crop breeding and to speed up or make more effective this conventional crop breeding.

The objection to GMOs, which is an old technology, is twofold. One is scientific. This was always a very uncertain and unpredictable technology. It was never tested properly for safety or consistency and it is therefore fundamentally unsafe for the environment, for farm animals and for human beings. Second thing, and maybe a more fundamental objection, is that we have had a certain form of agriculture in the Western world for sixty years now, an agriculture which depended on very large inputs of artificial chemicals, of artificial nitrogen, of mined phosphate of potassium. There was a big surplus of nitrogen at the end of the Second World War. When it wasn't needed for armament anymore it was diverted to big inputs for agriculture. The nitrogen fertilizer made crops much weaker and demanded the pesticides that we know now, the weed killers, the insecticides, the fungicides.

GM crops were, at their root, an attempt to continue a trend in agriculture which had been going on for at least fifty years at that time. This was a trend in agriculture which moved us to bigger and bigger farms, and fewer farmers. This is true in North America, in Western Europe, in Latin America, and now increasingly in other parts of the world. That meant less jobs in rural areas, less diversity of crops and livestock, less farm wild life. In my country it meant between 95% and 98% decline in farmland wild life for example. It also means less nutrients in the food we eat. As the wild life went down, jobs went down, the number of farms went down, the quality of the food declined as well. We were becoming reliant on a smaller and smaller genetic base of crops and livestock. It also led to far worse animal welfare. Let's think about those things we do to pigs and chicken. GM was designed to allow that trend and its continuing: it wasn't an alternative.

I want to say something about where we are now with GM. I am very optimistic. Europe has moved away from a position where all the major countries were supporters of GM - France, the UK, Germany - all our prime ministers at that time assumed that all crops would be GM by now; that was when I was at Green Peace and when we started campaigning against GM. We have moved in the UK to an interesting position where, although England is still in favour of GM, Wales has the most hostile policy to GM of any European country and Scotland is very determined to be GM free.

Of course in France things have changed: I don't know whether you are aware of this but one of the things that the GM industry has been desperate to do is to maintain what is now completely a myth; that GM will conquer the world, that all of us will be eating GM and producing GM crops. There came a time a few years ago when the area of GM crops in France went down significantly. Now the GM industry produced statistics every year to show that the area of GM crops was going up around the world. It was certainly a little awkward to find that in Europe it was in steep decline. So what they did, and Friends of the Earth discovered this, was that they simply ignored the existence of France. You became a non-country for the purposes of those statistics in that year which showed that GM crops in Europe were still increasing and not decreasing. You should all keep an eye on the future of Spain, because GM maize growing in Spain, which is now the largest area of GM crops in Europe, is beginning to drop. So maybe Spain will disappear completely from the map of Europe next year.

Finally something about America. America is where we are told GM is a huge success. Everyone loves GM, the consumers love GM, the producers love GM. This is simply not true. It is a myth which companies like Monsanto and others created and that some journalists in Europe are quite willing to repeat. To give you an example, you may have heard there was a case of the World Trade Organisation which the Americans won about GM hormone milk which the Europeans refused to import. I think it was Roquefort cheese and Dijon mustard that had a big import duty imposed on them by the Americans. The British got off free because as you know George Bush and Tony Blair were lovers and we didn't get punished for this but the French got punished. This GM hormone milk, in America, has collapsed. Actually what happened was that the organic industry in America started to label the milk as hormone free and people started to buy it. Other diaries started to label hormone free. Walmart, Starbucks, Safeways all went hormone free milk and the sales collapsed and so Monsanto had to sell the company. So this is not a success and now the market for the GM food in America is changing. The fastest growing grocery label in America is the new GM free label. They have 170 US and Canadian food businesses signed up to this new label which they guarantee, with testing, no GM in the food. There are 4500 food products due to be labelled GM free. It is the fastest growing food label as I said, with an increase in sales of 67% last year.

One word on farmers. GM is a disaster for farmers. GM companies like Monsanto get a grip on the market and then they screw the farmers, they increase the prices. For example GM soya seed is costing 230% more than it did ten years ago. GM cotton has gone up from 73 dollars to 700 dollars. Soya seed used to cost about 4% to 8% of the income from the crop, now it's 22% of the farmer's income and cotton is even worth: about a third of the value of the cotton is spent on the GM cotton seed. Now this would be OK if you saved money on pesticides but last year there were 26% more pesticide used on GM crops than on non-GM. There were terrible problems with insect resistance: new pests and diseases and weeds. So it's about time Europeans really learn what is going on in the countries which have tried GM for longer so that we maintain our strong resistance and get France and Spain back on the GM free map.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Lord Peter Melchett, "Lord Peter Melchett on GMOs", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), décembre 2010. Consulté le 13/11/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/developpement-durable/lord-peter-melchett-on-gmos