GM regulation ‘not fit for purpose’, says Commons committee – and it’s right

Vitamin A-enhanced GM Golden Rice has become a flashpoint for campaigners despite its health benefits. IRRI

As a scientist who has spent the past 32 years using genetic modification to improve crops and make biological discoveries, the report published by the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee on GM technology is a joy to read. Others, particularly campaigners against the technology, will be dismayed at their failure to convince ten independent-minded MPs of their concerns.

The report is a carefully written assessment of the arguments for and against a controversial method, with many sensible recommendations for what should happen next. It’s a good read for anybody with an interest in new technologies to improve crops, or in how public misunderstanding (often encouraged by campaigners) can result in disproportionate regulation that can hamper innovation.

Reviewing regulations

The report starts by remarking on the scale of the food security challenge, notes that GM has already been widely adopted and points to published findings regarding its safety. The question is whether UK and EU regulations regarding GM food are fit for purpose – and what changes, if any, are required.

Crucially, the MPs endorsed the view that it is wrong to think of GM as a single, generic technology – as the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Wolpert said:

Whether GM technology is a good or bad thing is not a sensible question; it depends on how it is applied. The question in every case is: what gene, what organism and for what purpose?

The report quite rightly strongly recommends that the government re-frames the debate away from an overly simple notion of “GM”.

Land area in 2011 used for GM crops was 160m hectares, or 1.6m sq km. Fafner, CC BY-SA

Reasoning with the opposition

Those opposed to GM tend to claim it is represented as a “silver bullet” that could alone provide food security, or that it is a technology that could lock its users into a method that “cannot peacefully co-exist with other methods”, or is one that has “squeezed out” other approaches to agricultural innovation. After careful examination of the evidence, the committee found none of these criticisms to be valid.

Paul Burrows, the executive director of BBSRC, told the committee that, of BBSRC’s nearly £500m annual research budget (including £70m spent on plant science), only £4m is allocated to GM research. By this measure GM, far from displacing other research, accounts for only a tiny fraction of it.

The report highlights more complex concerns over intellectual property rights. Industry representatives argued that the long regulatory process and large costs involved in the EU meant that without a competition-free period (through patents) to exploit the inventions, nobody would invest. Such investment is indispensable if we want to meet the food security challenge. On the other hand, the absolute position of campaign group GM Freeze is that “genetic resources are a public good and should not be owned by anybody”. The report is right to recommend that this issue should be examined in depth after the election.

Sidestepping the ‘precautionary principle’

European regulation and the “precautionary principle” (which can be paraphrased as “look before you leap”) have had a major influence on the import and cultivation of GM crops. The committee urges the European Commission to “clearly and publicly state when it has drawn on the precautionary principle in the policy formation process” since there is lack of clarity on this issue. The report is right to “remind the commission that any legislation guided by the precautionary principle must allow for an exit from precautionary measures once there is strong scientific consensus that any risks are low”.

There have been many studies of GM crops in the past. Chris Young/PA

Not fit for purpose

Among the evidence cited in the report is that from Eric Poudelet, the safety director of the European Commission, about the influence of politics on whether or not the European Commission and the Council of Ministers decide to act on the recommendations of the European Food Standards Agency. “Dysfunctional” EU regulation has led to abandonment by major companies of GM-based crop improvement in Europe. Professor Joyce Tait of the University of Edinburgh pointed out that “the more onerous the regulatory system, the more difficult it is for small companies to get through to the market”. This only reinforces the tendency towards domination of the sector by a few large companies.

A crucial finding of the committee is that:

A regulatory system under which it takes many years – sometimes decades – to reach a decision cannot possibly be considered fit for purpose.

The recommendations include several very important points. For example, those campaigning against the technology, such as Greenpeace against pro-Vitamin A-enhanced Golden Rice, should “review their public communication materials to ensure that they are evidence-based and honest in setting out the reasons for opposition to this technology".

The Committee considered alleged health and other concerns about GM crops and concluded that:

The current EU legislative framework for novel plants is founded on the premise that genetically modified plants pose inherently greater risk than their conventional counterparts. The weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, collected over many years, has shown this to be unjustified. Where genetically modified crops have been shown to pose a risk, this has invariably been a result of the trait displayed – for example, herbicide tolerance – rather than the technology itself.

We are disappointed that the government has not more publicly argued this fact. We recommend that the government publicly acknowledge that genetically modified crops pose no greater inherent risk than their conventional counterparts.

Bravery in controversy

In summary, ten MPs from three parties currently seeking re-election have written a brave report on a controversial technology. Their recommendations are indisputable. There is nothing intrinsically risky about GM. Current regulation is not fit for purpose; we should regulate specific traits, not the method by which they are delivered, in each member state.

As they themselves conclude: “Regulatory reform is no longer merely an option, it is a necessity.” The report recommends the government makes a commitment to argue for major reform of EU regulation of genetically enhanced novel crops. Legislators must grasp this nettle and remove the regulations that prevent science and technology from improving our crops and providing solutions to longstanding crop problems of weeds, pests and disease.