Parliament in Perspective 7th November 2014

Far from the screaming headlines of the 1990s, which drew attention to ‘Frankenstein foods’ and the ‘messing’ with genes and genetics, most people are now open-minded or don’t feel strongly about GM crops, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee heard last week, writes Catherine Paice.

Sile Lane, director of campaigns at Sense About Science, which helps people to make sense of scientific evidence, said that depending on the questions asked, between 50% and 70% of people don’t know much and don’t care much about GM. However, it was hard to find independent research on the subject. Survey work concealed as much as it revealed, according to UCL lecturer Dr Jack Stilgoe, who said there was a risk of complacency in understanding the tenor and diversity of public debate. Professor Brian Wynne of Lancaster University said the public was more open than was credited but agreed there was ambivalence, more about the recognition of their dependence on research that they felt they could not trust. Monsanto was criticised for cutting out the public in the early debate. A study across the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and France revealed, far from differences, a “staggering convergence”.

Risk assessment did not cover the issues and concerns. Other considerations such as ownership and control of the food chain were reflected across all countries, Prof Wynne said. Spain had been one of the few to commercialise GM crops. Germany had approved trials for GM crops.

The committee discussed the need for a one-stop shop for information, but there was some resistance on the grounds that scientists should not get involved in political issues. Peter Melchett reiterated the Soil Association’s demand for the ability to segregate GM and non-GM. This was backed up by the NFU’s chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, Dr Helen Ferrier, who reminded the committee that growers should be able to choose their markets but acknowledged that co-existence was already embedded in different types of crop production and marketing arrangements. The NFU also flagged up the need for regulatory measures, for example for distance. But geno-technology had moved on rapidly since the 1990s, and farmers and society were missing out on the ability to apply that to our own crops and challenges, Dr Ferrier said.

MPs have urged the Government to reverse huge cuts made to the funding of Wrap, the industry body tackling waste reduction, amid fears that household food waste will increase sharply. A report by EFRA, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, has slammed DEFRA for “washing its hands of the waste issue” a year ago, leaving it to business to address the problem and resulting in a slowdown in recycling. The report warns that the £10 million cut to Wrap’s budget, which included £3.6m on projects specifically targeting food waste, had taken the leadership out of waste management.

The EU target is for 50% household recycling by 2020. “We are concerned that this target will not be met in England without clear government leadership,” the report said.

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