Plant Science Post

Why This Farmer Changed His Mind on GM Crops

March 4, 2015
Farmer Livelihood

U.K. farmer Paul Temple once lobbied to keep genetically-modified (GM) crops out of Europe, but after he saw how they could boost farm productivity and sustainability first hand, he changed his mind. Today, he is one the strongest proponents for the technology. We asked him what changed his mind.

Where and what do you farm?

We have a mixed arable and beef farm in the north of England, and I have farmed here all my life. In total we farm 340 hectares and grow wheat, barley, oilseed rape, peas, maize and potatoes.

Is it true you once lobbied against GM crops?

Yes, I lobbied to keep GM crops out of Europe in the 1990s because I thought it would help our competitiveness by being GM-free. But I wanted to learn and to be informed, so I performed a field scale evaluation of biotech crops for the government between 1999 and 2001.

What changed your mind?

Seeing the benefits first hand opened my mind to the new breeding technique. We could leave weeds within the crop over winter to benefit wildlife, the herbicide was easier to use and less harsh on the crop and our yields increased. We could tolerate weeds knowing we would be able to control them properly and precisely post-emergence. After three years I felt properly informed and offered to share my practical experience about the benefits of the technology.

So why aren’t you growing GM crops today?

At the moment there are no GM crops available to me in the U.K. because the only crop the European Union (EU) has authorized, Bt maize, is resistant to the European corn borer. This pest isn’t an issue for us in the U.K.. But without a shadow of a doubt I would use GM crops if I could. We would really benefit from herbicide resistant maize and oilseed rape for example. These would help us solve problems in a more sustainable way where we could use contact-point herbicides rather than soil-acting varieties, which are not as efficient.

Do you think people understand what GM could offer?

No. Most people are blissfully unaware of the problem of cereal aphids in the U.K. for example. Aphids cause significant damage to crops and spread plant diseases, and we use broad spectrum chemical insecticides to control them. But what if we had an in-built natural defense mechanism that repelled aphids? GM technology offers these new routes to problem solving, but before I participated in the trials I didn’t understand either the research or the potential.

With such potential, why doesn’t the EU support GM?

It is mainly due to weak disjointed leadership in the face of non-governmental organization (NGO) lobbying. The result is that companies with the capability and expertise to develop products will not invest millions of pounds into an improved crop because the politicians reject it at every turn. We need to hold NGOs accountable because they act without responsibility. We also need to point out that EU consumers are already GM-dependent through animal feed imports.

What would you say to these NGOs?

NGOs say it is only the big farmers and big business that benefits from GM but that is not the case. In fact there are more farmers growing GM crops in the developing world than the developed, and I have met many small-scale farmers that grow GM crops. For example, in India small-scale farmers are growing insect-resistant cotton more precisely with reduced applications of pesticides thanks to GM.

How can we overcome the EU impasse on GM?

We need education to show that the technology is sustainable both environmentally and economically. For example if people and politicians realized that something like 90% of their packets of meat were from animals fed on GM, they would see how important the technology is for affordable food. Farmers need to be educated too. Rather than being shown PowerPoints with graphs going up and down they need to see the success of the crop in the field and the choice it offers, like I did.