Come back GM: all is forgiven?

The BES Policy Team last night attended a meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee exploring GM technology. Entitled, ‘Come back GM, all is forgiven?’, the Chair, Ian Taylor MP, made it clear that the question mark was there for a reason; by the end of the event it was clear that further meetings of the Committee are needed to allow members to explore these issues in greater depth. Opinions from the floor were aligned along two polar opposites and there was not the time available to allow sufficient debate to begin to bring these two sides together.

Presentations from Professor Peter Shewry and Professor Howard Atkinson introduced the topic to those present and set the scene for later discussion. Professor Shewry showed a slide illustrating the global scale of growth of GM crops; these are now cultivated in 25 countries worldwide, across 70 million acres of land and have now been grown for 14 years. In this time, Professor Shewry said, no ill effects to health or the environment have been recorded. In outlining the case for growing GM crops Prof. Shewry said that society needs them for three reasons: to improve the quality of crops (i.e. to reduce diet-related disease); to increase sustainability (through less intensive inputs), and to increase productivity (contributing to food security).

Prof. Shewry’s research is concerned with the health benefits of GM crops, particularly wheat. By modifying wheat crops to express genes for the production of fish oils (long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids), the human dietary intake of fish oils can be increased without recourse to intensification of fish farming. In giving reasons why GM had not been adopted in the UK, at the end of his talk, Prof. Shewry suggested that prejudice, misinformation and elitism in Western nations was responsible, with it reducing opportunities from those in developing countries, with limited access to food, to benefit from this technology.

This was a theme returned to in discussion with Chris Kirk, Chief Executive of the Biochemical Society firmly making the point that those in the West get extremely incensed about the use of GM technology to produce food, yet are content to use pharmaceutical products maunfactured in a similar way. Again, he reiterated the point that concerns in affluent countries are damaging the prospects of less developed countries to benefit from this technology.

Concerns were raised by some present about the potential health impacts of GM crops – one example given was that the effects of exposure to asbestos are felt only 25 years later, so 14 years may be too short a timescale of testing to declare GM foods ‘safe’- and the problem of secondary pest emergence in GM cotton (Bt cotton), leading to increased pesticide spraying once more. One audience member raised the important point that many people are genuinely concerned about GM technology and that these concerns cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. He and others called for greater engagement from the scientific community in the debate, communicating with the public and providing syntheses of the scientific evidence for policy-makers.

Jim Paice, MP for South West Cambridgeshire made the point that it was very hard for politicians to find their way through the morass of ‘sweeping statements’ made by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace; without engagement from the scientific community, such negative, and poorly evidenced, statements would dominate debate. Chris Kirk urged policy-makers and Committee members to read the Royal Society’s recent report: “Reaping the Benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture” as an authoritative digest of current scientific evidence regardiing GM technology.

Finally, Lord Rooker mentioned the ‘GM Dialogue‘ which the Food Standards Agency has been asked to lead on behalf of the Government. This public engagement project is expected to last for around 12 months and steering group members have recently been announced. With this, a potential further Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting on this topic and a Talk Science event at the British Library in January, it seems that GM food may once more be rising up the agenda.