GM crops: time to counter the scare stories and relax barriers

GM crops are grown without fuss around the world, just not the UK and Europe. EPA/Shepherd Zhou

Many people, including me, are pretty fed up with the continuing fuss about GM food and crops. Are they too dangerous to eat? Are they a hazard to the environment? Despite a “debate” stretching back to 1998, why has no consensus been reached?

It’s pretty clear to everyone that we will need to grow more food – and grow it sustainably – so why can’t we make up our minds? There have been innumerable reviews and many open debates. How does the recently published letter from the Council for Science and Technology to the government help?

Initially the focus of the debate was on the meal from GM soya beans, which the regulatory committee (which I chaired) had recommended to ministers to be safe. This was challenged by a claim, in press releases and on a TV programme in August 1998, from Dr A Pusztai that GM potatoes caused cancer when fed to rats. A claim that this was true of all GM foods was then made, but never sustained – the claims were disputed and could not be reproduced.

But it became the rallying cry for a well-run media campaign which took all GM products out of UK supermarkets and stopped the European approval process dead in its tracks. But not in the US. Despite these fears, the fact that US consumers have been eating GM products for over a decade and that no-one in the most litigious nation in the world, has been harmed, is the reason why even the pressure groups have dropped their claims.

What about the environment? This is a contentious area and claims have been made too about the adverse effects of GM crops on the environment – including damage to insects. They are often generalised to all GM crops, often from a single report. I have read the evidence carefully and my conclusion is that there is no evidence that genetic modification per se causes harm. GM crops do spread but just like normal crops and plant breeders have known how to handle those problems for years.

So what went wrong? The genetic modification of the soya bean was modest – no more than the introduction of two genes from a common soil bacterium. But this product, although deemed safe by the regulatory committee, was rejected by consumers. Why was this? There were a number of reasons.

There was a strong reaction against what was perceived as the economic hegemony of a large US multinational company and their unwillingness to label or to separate the new product from non-GM versions, so that consumers had no choice. Thus, decisions that might possibly affect the health of British consumers, and certainly affected their ability to choose, were being taken by Monsanto in Missouri. Consumers objected to this perceived loss of control.

Plus, GM soya offered the consumer no advantage. The advantage went to the farmer and seed producer – there was little incentive for them to buy it.

Underlying all this was a suspicion of the regulatory process, which stemmed from the BSE (or mad cow disease) outbreak in the UK in the 1990s. The media played their role too in enabling the anti-GM campaign to flourish, despite the poor scientific basis to many of their claims.

All these issues are addressed in the letter to the prime minister from the Council for Science and Technology. It suggests a sensible way forward and what follows are some of their main points that speak to how we should proceed with GM.

Scientists’ advice to the government

There is a consensus on the scientific evidence that, when properly controlled, GM products are as safe as their conventional counterparts. We should have confidence in this and the EU regulatory process needs to be rebalanced to reflect the evidence. The European Academies Science Advisory Council are in agreement too that the regulatory framework should switch its focus on to products rather than on technologies.

We need a regulatory framework that can allow for a variety of solutions to the current and future problems facing UK agriculture. In some instances, GM may be the only solution to a particular problem or one of several. We need a framework that is flexible enough to accommodate this.

To move forward, government, industry, NGOs and the research community should tackle the barriers that prevent properly sanctioned field trials from taking place. Plus, most consumers are unaware of the challenges of food production and distribution. It would help if food producers and retailers were more open about these challenges, as the benefits citizens will have from GM technologies will be more apparent.

Government, industry and the scientific community all have a role to play in explaining the technology, its benefits and how it is regulated. Others, including retailers, NGOs and the media, all have a duty to ensure that the debate reflects the evidence accurately. Wider concerns, which go beyond the scientific evidence, need to be acknowledged and addressed.

The UK should continue to call loudly for science and evidence-based decision making on this issue – it’s clear that scientific consensus in both Britain and Europe calls for a relaxation of the strict barriers to GM crops.