Government advisors call for scrapping of rules slowing GM technology

The government’s advisors on science, the Council on Science and Technology, have written to the Prime Minister calling for the scrapping of dysfunctional regulations that hinder the development of genetically modified crops that could play a vital role in ensuring food supplies.

The letter suggests that the UK should tackle obstacles to the development of GM crops. “Government, industry, NGOs and the research community should tackle the barriers preventing properly sanctioned field trials from taking place,” it says. “We need the right regulatory framework that will encourage continued research into solutions to current and future problems facing UK agriculture.”

“The UK’s plant science is world class and we are well placed to develop tools that would enable the whole world to tackle the global challenges of food security,” the letter says. “We should take every opportunity to reveal the strength of UK science and encourage inward investment. The EU is currently hostile to growing GM crops, but the UK can still benefit significantly in developing innovations that the rest of the world will use.”

“GM may be the only solution to a particular problem (as with the disease take-all in wheat) or one of several: either way, we need a well-regulated environment that encourages UK field trials to evaluate the efficacy of new GM crops,” it says.

It does recognise public concern about the use of GM in crop production, but notes that GM technology for drug development has been used worldwide with what it calls “minimal opposition.”

“The scientific evidence will only go so far,” it says. “We recognise that some sections of the public are either unconvinced by the scientific evidence they have seen, or doubt the motives behind it.”

“Building trust must be a priority,” it says, highlighting factors which could help. “There needs to be clear benefit and use to the consumer or citizen.”

“The case must be made that food developed from GM is the product of sustainable agriculture, is of the highest nutritional quality, and can meet the needs of communities in different parts of the world.”

It suggests that advocates of GM should be careful to avoid generalising by talking about the technology generically. “The message must be that each genetically modified plant needs to be considered specifically,” it says. “‘GM’ is neither intrinsically safe nor unsafe.”
There must be effective regulatory frameworks. Researchers must avoid making overly ambitious claims for GM. “GM is just one of many technologies that we need to apply alongside good governance and regulation to achieve the combined aims of feeding global populations and good stewardship of our planetary environment,” it says. “Other key approaches include the application of genomics for more effective plant breeding, the development of selective herbicides and pesticides, better fertilisers, improving our soil science, and more efficient and effective irrigation.”

“The quality of debate is substantially enhanced if we acknowledge the different ways in which citizens very properly approach complex issues,” it says. “Fairness in the distribution of risks and benefits is critical to the acceptability of any new technology and a key factor in persuading many opponents will be reassurance that the benefits of GM will flow to those that need them, as well as to the companies who own the intellectual property.”

“Many opponents are not in fact concerned by GM in itself, but by corporate control of the food chain,” it says. “An automatic association of the concept of GM with multinational corporations needs to be challenged: the application of philanthropic funding by the Gates Foundation for GM research of direct benefit to small farmers is a case in point.”

“Debate and decision-making within Europe present a particular challenge,” the letter says. “Current EU regulatory and market access problems are hampering the development of crops for EU markets and farmers.”

“The recent withdrawal by BASF of EU applications relating to the use of a GM product (a blight resistant potato which would have been of value to British farmers) is a stark illustration of the problem,” it says. “This risks denying us access to innovations we will need, now and in the future, and the export of intellectual and commercial capital away from the EU, including UK scientists, damaging the UK research sector.”

The letter, from CST co-chairs Sir Mark Walport Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell has also been sent to the Deputy Prime Minister, Owen Paterson, Vince Cable, Justine Greening, David Willetts, and Sir Jeremy Heywood.

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