(WFP editors's note: Since publication, this article has been amended. Reference to the Royal Society of Medicine has been removed.)
Ever since the fall of Communism, Poland has tried to move into the modern world by embracing democracy, freedom, and market liberalization. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it. Many observers say that we have one of the healthiest economies in Europe.
Last month, however, I believe we took a significant step backward. Our government banned an important farm technology for purely political reasons and without any scientific justification.
This disastrous decision will hurt Polish farmers and consumers right away. It also sets a terrible precedent for the future. We must overturn it immediately.
Like most of Europe, Poland has refused to participate fully in the biotech revolution that has transformed agricultural production around the world. Yet last year we were at least able to grow two kinds of genetically modified crops: a type of corn that fights insect pests and a potato that produces an abundance of starch.
Now they’re outlawed, meaning that Polish farmers cannot use the innovations that millions of farmers elsewhere take for granted, from advanced nations such as the United States and Canada to developing countries like Brazil and the Philippines.
My family owns a farm just north of Warsaw. On about 50 hectares, we grow a range of crops, including corn. We haven’t used the biotech corn that was previously available in Poland only because the pest that it guards against–the European corn borer–is not a threat in our region. In other parts of Poland, however, these bugs can ruin entire fields, wiping out a whole season’s production in just a few days.
My day job as a researcher for Poland’s Institute of Plant Breeding and Acclimatization (IHAR) has given me plenty of hands-on experience with GM corn. I’ve studied it closely, looking at GM corn’s economic and environmental effects. I’m convinced that it is a safe and beneficial option for farmers and consumers in Poland–and everywhere else, for that matter.
GM crops are better than conventional strains for a long list of reasons. They allow us to grow more food on less land. They let us reduce our reliance on herbicides and pesticides. And best of all, they are perfectly safe: Despite the fearful rhetoric of political activists, they pose no health risk. Farmers have planted and harvested more than 3 billion acres of GM crops. People have eaten trillions of servings of food with GM ingredients. No one anywhere has ever suffered for it.
The bottom line is that food derived from biotechnology is a safe and healthy option that carries economic and environmental benefits.
Leaving farmers behind
That’s why governments around the world have accepted GM crops.
As the evidence for the advantages of GM crops mounts, skeptics are turning into converts. Last month at the Oxford Farming Conference in Britain, former Greenpeace activist Mark Lynas apologized for his earlier opposition to biotechnology and urged governments and farmers to adopt 21st-century practices for the sake of the environment.
So by banning a couple of previously approved GM crops, Poland is moving in exactly the wrong direction. Our government has turned back the clock on food production.
Worst of all, our public officials know that GM crops are safe for human consumption. If they truly believed otherwise, they would forbid the purchase of GM food from other countries. Yet each year we import more than 2 million tons of GM soybeans for food and feed, as well as corn, cotton, and other crops.
The message is irrational and incomprehensible. It says that GM crops are acceptable for everyone, including Polish consumers–but that Polish farmers under no circumstances may use a proven technology that has led to a boom in production everywhere it has been tried.
Poland must continue to push forward into a bright future of hope and opportunity, not backward into a new Dark Age that views innovation and technology with terror. It must not leave its farmers behind.
Roman Warzecha grows maize, sweet corn, rape and cherries on a family farm in the Mazowia region of Poland. Mr. Warzecha leads maize and triticale research at Poland’s Institute of Plant Breeding and Acclimatization (IHAR) and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).