Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is GM now an election issue in Ireland?

Amidst the background of one of the most divisive and stormy parliamentary elections in Ireland's history, the outgoing government has made a significant move on GM crops.

Outgoing Minister for Agriculture, Brendan Smith, from the ruling Fianna Fáil party, confirmed in a statement this week (Tuesday, Feb 8th) that Ireland has changed its voting position and will now support a number of EU Commission proposals designed to allow for the marketing of GM food, feed and food ingredients.

The move, although welcomed in many quarters will no doubt cause controversy, not least from the ruling party's former coalition allies the Green Party, whose departure from government triggered a general election to be held on February 25th next.

Up till now, the GM issue has been absent from the debate over who should form the next government. Understandably, voters have been more worried about their jobs and the future of Ireland's economy than to be interested in the details of EU policy and rhetoric from pro- and anti-GM sides.

It's not the first time that the GM issue has impacted on this coalition government. Back in 2009, the Green Party - Fianna Fáil government had to renegotiate their terms of agreement and their programme for government (pdf). This led to a major concession to the Greens - the promise of making Ireland a 'GM-Free Zone'.

Although much trumpeted by the Greens then, it has never become a reality. Neither has the promise to introduce a GM-Free logo modelled on the German "Ohne Gentechnik" logo.

In a short response on twitter, Green Party Chairman and Senator Dan Boyle replied that the u-turn had shown “what Fianna Fáil really thinks of consumer fears” and that, in government, the Green party “had stopped this”.

Meanwhile, the Green Party’s Agriculture spokesperson Trevor Sargent said the party was “alarmed” by the move and that “in government, the Green Party ensured that Ireland abstained on this vote”.

Calling the move a backward step, Sargent said that the issue was about “consumer choice” and that the decision “damages the quality image of Irish food produce”.

Brendan Smith explained this week that "it has been a matter of great concern to Ireland, in recent years, that there has been a severe disruption to trade of animal feed, caused by the delays in the authorisation, by the EU, of GM varieties which have already been approved in the exporting countries."

According to Smith, the difficulty of importing certified GM-free animal feed  (90% of which comes from North and South America) has led to the shortfall having been made up by more expensive feed which puts Irish meat producers at a serious disadvantage. The Irish Farmers Association say this disadvantage can be as much as €15 on every pig produced.

The greens however dispute this argument asserting that “as cattle eat grass most of the year, this small premium would represent a tiny price differential for the customer (e.g. 2c on a Sunday roast)”. That’s fine, I guess if you’re eating beef and not pork on a Sunday.

Ireland's support for the EU Commission proposals was confirmed at a meeting of the EU Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health in Brussels on Tuesday.

GM-Free Ireland, had called (pdf) for Smith to vote against the proposals saying they would "undermine our Government's agreed GM-Free policy". The Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association called the move “short-sighted” and argued that the decision did not reflect the wishes of the people.  Clearly though, with the Greens now out of government, the remaining Fianna Fáil ministers were free to make decisions without the input of their former partners.

The EU proposal seeks to remove the "zero tolerance" policy towards GM components of animal feed and allow trace amounts, up to 0.1% to be imported.

It will be interesting to see whether one of the final decisions of the outgoing administration will lead to GM becoming an issue in this election. One suspects not, but it may at least allow the public to hear from each political party where they stand on the GM issue.

The author will be presenting a talk entitled Trust Me, I'm A Scientist: Genetically Modified Crops and the Public Perception of Science to a meeting of Cork Skeptics in Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork on Friday February 18th, 2011 at 8pm. All Welcome.

This article also appears, in an edited form on The Guardian science blog: Notes and Theories.


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