Why Britain is going its own way on GMOs

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Britain is set to plant genetically modified crops on British soil in the next few years—perhaps to the dismay of its neighbors in staunchly anti-GMO nations France, Germany and Hungary.

The European Union compromise signed on January 14, 2015, and going into effect this spring, gives countries the right to choose to grow GMOs that have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority. Previously, because of a weighted voting system, many GM crops were doomed for rejection.

For almost the last two decades, opposition to genetically modified foods in Europe has had a firm hold, and genetically modified foods have been the scapegoat for criticisms about industrialized agriculture, globalization and deterioration of local economies, said French researcher Sylvie Bonny.

According to Eurobarometer surveys, in 2001, 71 percent of those surveyed in the European Union outright rejected GMOs. Even at that time, respondents were less hostile in the UK, while France and Austria had some of the strongest opposition.

The results were less stark with the pollster Ipsos MORI in 2003, but even so, 42 percent of people in Britain viewed GMOs as more risky than beneficial, reported the Economist. But by 2011, the numbers dropped down to only 27 percent of the British public who thought GMOs were risky. And, over the last few years, support in Britain has only grown—both in public perception and political will.

Former UK Environment Minister Owen Paterson and Prime Minister David Cameron have been vocally supportive of GMOs since 2012 and were responsible for helping to develop the new EU compromise that goes into effect this spring.

Last March, a group of scientists, chaired by David Baulcombe from the University of Cambridge, issued a report to the Council for Science and Technology suggesting that support of this kind of compromise may be the only way the UK could take advantage of the technology.

Yet British politicians have grown confident enough in GMO technology that they actually abstained from the final vote due to the concerns that rules on cultivating GMOs along the borders of member states who ban the technology are too restrictive, UK’s head of GM policy and regulation Sarah Cundy told the Guardian.

So, why has Britain gone its own way?

Perhaps, it is the work of British science and its ambition to continue to be globally competitive and relevant.

Though it will likely be a few years before a genetically modified crop is grown in the UK, British researchers had been working on genetically modified crop varieties for years—even without hope of releasing them.

For example, the Rothamsted Institute is testing a wheat variety genetically engineered to express a pheromone that will deter aphid infestation and reduce the use of pesticides, while the John Innes Centre is developing crops that take in nitrogen from the air, which could substantially reduce economic and environmental costs of using nitrogen fertilizer.

A letter to the prime minister signed by UK chief scientific advisor Mark Waldport and co-chair Nancy Rothwell of the Council for Science and Technology, brags:

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. 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.

Secondly, Britain’s small geographic size and location forces it to import some of its food, and Britons want self-sufficiency. According to a speech by UK Environmental Minister Elizabeth Truss, Britain produces 60 percent of the food it eats, down from 74 percent 20 years ago. She stressed the importance of local food: “We know consumers want to buy British because it is local, because it is seasonal and because it is tasty.”

This means reducing exports from other countries and building its own agricultural sector. High-yielding varieties are particularly needed—something genetically modified technologies may be able to provide.

Truss called for decisions on GM crops to be based on science-based evidence.

Ultimately we want to see far more decisions to be taken in Britain for the benefit of British producers.

Thirdly, its politicians and scientists have also gotten increasingly savvy about science communication.

Key among these messages, Walport and Rothwell urged politicians not to make grandiose statements about the benefits of GM foods. Genetic modification is just one of many tools that can be used to improve food security, they said.

They also asked that the term “genetically modified” be parsed apart and each technology and plant modification be examined individually.

It appears that in the UK, the pro-side will come out on top in time, though proponents still face challenges, such as a waning but still present public concern over the technology and political resistance in Wales and Scotland, which have declared themselves GMO-free.

But in the new Europe, where nations can now make their own approvals for genetically modified crops, the question is: Whose victory is this?

In a column by Geoffrey Lean at the Telegraph, he surmises that no one is actually completely happy. Industry supporters are upset that national bans will only further cement the anti-GMO sentiment, ensuring genetically modified crops will never be allowed in the market in countries like France, while those fearful of GMOs worry that national bans could still face legal challenges.

This round of politics shows some promise for those looking to advance Britain’s science and agriculture.

Rebecca Randall is a journalist focusing on international relations and global food issues. Follow her @beccawrites.

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