Protecting Scotland’s “clean, green brand?”: The BES GM Debate

In recent months the debate over the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has returned to the fore in the UK, as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have announced new “bans” on GM crops. But what are the changes in regulation that have precipitated these announcements, and what will they mean in practice?

The decisions derive from a change in European Union legislation (Directive 2015/412) which came into force in March 2015. Under the EU’s precautionary approach, any GMO must go through a stringent authorisation procedure, including a scientific risk assessment led by the European Food Safety Agency, and a final vote by Member States. This procedure hasn’t changed. However, Member States have now been given significantly more provision to opt-out of allowing the cultivation of an EU-approved GMO on their soil.

Member States can opt-out at two different stages. First, when a new GMO is going through the authorisation process, they can ask for the geographical scope of the authorisation to be restricted: the GMO would never be authorised in that country. Second, they can prohibit or restrict the cultivation of a GM crop that is already authorised: the GMO would be retrospectively banned. Significantly, while previously Member States could only restrict the cultivation of a previously authorised GMO on the basis of new evidence of risk to the environment or human health, this restriction can now be applied on a wide range of economic, policy and political grounds.

Member States were given a deadline of 3rd October to opt-out of the cultivation of crops already approved by the EU, or currently going through the approval process, and this opportunity has been widely embraced. In addition to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, seventeen Member States, including Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, and the Belgian region of Wallonia, have exercised their ability to opt-out. GMOs will still be permitted in England, as well as countries such as Spain, Portugal and Sweden. In practice, the decision will have little immediate impact on farmers, as only one GMO has ever been approved for cultivation in the EU, a maize that is predominantly farmed in Spain.

Scotland’s “clean, green brand”

Scotland was the first nation in the UK to announce that it would ban GMOs, and the reasoning that the Scottish Government gave was echoed in Cardiff and Belfast. In explaining her government’s decision, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was explicit that the decision “was not based on scientific considerations but, rather one which took into account the wider economic ramifications that growing GM crops might have for Scotland.” Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, argued that banning GMOs would protect the country’s “clean and green brand”, and reflected a lack of public appetite for the technology and the potentially negative economic impacts of GMO cultivation for the Scottish food and drink sector.

In being clear that their choice was based not on science, but on political and economic values, the Scottish Government’s decision provides a reminder that policy-making will never be based entirely on scientific evidence. However, was the decision as well-informed by evidence as it possibly could have been? A new advice paper from the Royal Society of Edinburgh suggests not, arguing that the decision made insufficient use of scientific advice and failed to take into account new developments in GM technologies and the latest evidence on public opinion. However, while this view was supported in a letter signed by 28 scientific organisations, many environmental NGOs welcomed the Government’s decision.

Join the discussion: The BES GM Debate

With the debate about GMOs set to remain a contentious topic in Scotland and beyond, the BES Annual Meeting in Edinburgh this December offers the idea opportunity to examine this issue. As part of the Annual Meeting Fringe we’ll be hosting a free public debate at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Wednesday 16th December, bringing together a panel of diverse voices to look beyond polarised views and consider the science, politics, and ecological implications – both good and bad – of GM technologies. Chaired by Professor Alan Gray, confirmed speakers include The Roslin Institute’s Professor Helen Sang, and Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland. Register now and join the discussion!