The European Union and its member states need to drastically revise its regulations so that genetically modified crops can be approved if they are scientifically shown to be safe, according to a UK House of Commons committee report.
The analysis—”Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution”—also asked the UK government to make similar changes to its regulatory structure, potentially opening the door to new genetically modified foods and crops that have been caught in a regulatory and political stranglehold while much of the rest of the world is expanding the use of GM in agriculture. Currently 28 countries grow GM crops.
For nearly 10 years, the European Union has effectively or explicitly banned the application or import of genetically modified crops in its member states, though recently the governing body has begun to question a stance that is much stricter than the UK, the United States and other nations. Several EU member nations have become interested in using or developing modified crops, and have begun petitioning the EU for a loosening of its strict positions.
The report does present a mixed message on the thorny issue of how to deal with non-scientific cultural or emotional opposition to new technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee appeared to try to address concerns voiced by anti-GMO activists that political and cultural considerations should be part of the decision matrix in European and developing-nation governments. But the House of Commons committee also criticized “the precautionary principle,” which activists often cite to justify non-science concerns.
The precautionary principle is not a scientific principle but a cultural interpretation of risk tolerance that has been embraced by many governments, most commonly in Europe. Those opposed to GM crops invoke it, claiming that “genetically modified crops inherently pose greater risk than crops produced using other techniques,” although every major science organization in the world including every one in Europe, state clearly that GM crops are as safe or safer than organic or other conventional crops.
According to the House of Commons report, these distortions of the precautionary principle by GM opponents have resulted in:
- Overlooking the true risks of a new crop, which arise from its characteristics and use in the field, and not from how it is made.
- A failure of the UK and EU to keep up with the blisteringly fast pace of agricultural biotechnology, which is already developing new forms of “cisgenic” and other genetic methods that are more precise than previous methods and don’t require splicing of a foreign gene.
- Ignoring the benefits of biotechnology, while targeting all possible risks, because of an undue focus on scientific uncertainty that may never be resolved, and was never resolved when approving other traditional methods.
- Forcing EU member nations to state their opposition to GMOs in scientific terms (often resorting to debunked studies), while their true opposition is on political or ethical grounds.
Just as significantly as its recommendations for regulatory reform, the House of Commons report also demanded reviving public debate on the use, risks, ethics and issues revolving around genetically modified crops. The committee members noted that even using the term “GM” limited full debate, because technology around modern agriculture has evolved well beyond what scientists and the public perceive as genetic modification.
Non-government organizations (NGOs), such as Greenpeace or GM Freeze, were among those invited to comment to the committee while the report was being prepared. However, the report singled out these organizations for “knowingly and willingly misinforming the public.” The report cited comments from Greenpeace International, which wrote that “there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact,” the Alliance for Natural Health, which had written that “GM represents the biggest uncontrolled experiment ever,” and GM Freeze, which predicted the possibility of “massive social, economic and environmental damage worldwide.”
Just last month, a consortium of anti-GMO advocacy groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and GeneWatch UK sent a letter to the European Commission demanding that products derived from new methods of genetic engineering for plants and animals, such as gene editing, which are not as tightly regulated as classic genetic engineering, should be subject to EU’s current labyrinthal assessment and labelling laws. Their goal is to bring a stop to innovation in genetic engineering.
NGO opposition has had dramatic consequences on human well being, some studies suggest. “A recent analysis estimated that the cost of the eco lobby’s opposition to (genetically modified) Golden Rice has been about 1.4 million life years lost last decade in India alone,” said Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey. “The committee’s new report rightly urges Greenpeace and other eco-activist groups to cease their ideological-motivated opposition to this potentially life- and sight-saving crop.”
The media was not left off the hook, either. The report, being British, focused on broadcasts by the public British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), citing partiality caused by “false balance,” and a failure to treat lobbying groups as interested parties.
A few commenters in opposition to the UK Committee’s recommendations included the Scottish government, which focused on risks to the reputation of Scottish agricultural products. “Scotland’s food and drink sector depends to a large extent on the public’s perception of our clean and green image…In addition, while I appreciate that GM crops have been thoroughly trialed and tested, there is still some debate about the long term effects on the environment from growing GM crops. So, while the risks may be low, we have decided to take a cautious approach with respect to GM crops,” Scottish Environmental Minister Aileen McLeod wrote.
Opening the door to a public debate would mark the first official such forum since 2010. Meanwhile, other British officials have begun efforts to begin such talks.
What’s at stake? Being able to increase food production worldwide by 50 percent “if the world is to feed a projected population of nine billion by 2050, and this will have to be achieved with less land, less water and less energy,” according to the Royal Society.
“The debate on GM is too often hampered by myths and misinformation,” said Professor Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society. “That is as true of the debate among legislators as it is of public debate. To have a good discussion people need to be able to assess the actual evidence, free of the ideology. The Select Committee is right that it is time for that discussion to happen.”
Note: This story first appeared on the GLP in February, 2015.
Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.