GM crops: UK scientists call for new trials

GM maize Only one variety of GM crop is commercially cultivated in the EU, due to strict regulations

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A new report on genetically modified (GM) crops, commissioned by the prime minister, calls for more UK field trials and fewer EU restrictions.

The Council for Science and Technology (CST) wants "public good" GM varieties to be grown and tested in the UK.

It says GM crops should be assessed individually - like pharmaceuticals - taking potential benefits into account.

A new UK regulator similar to NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) should be set up, it says.

The UK is a world leader in plant biotechnology research, but GM field trial applications have fallen from 37 in 1995 to just one in 2012.

The controversy over genetically modifying plants is riddled with contradictions.

Take the European Union. Its internal politics have caused a logjam in approvals but the EU science budget is also funding some of Britain's research.

Europe grows very few GM plants but most of its imported animal feed is genetically modified.

It was America's agricultural giants whose hard sell of GM put off so many European consumers but it is also US science that provides the evidence, gathered over the past two decades, that supports the assurance that GM plants and food are safe.

And while Britain's leading plant scientists appeal to the prime minister to help foster this new technology, its leading supermarket chains avoid stocking GM products because no-one is asking for them.

So can anything shift? The key is whether ministers can change minds in Brussels - and that's no easy task given the hostility towards GM in big players like France and Germany.

A long haul lies ahead.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has spoken in favour of increasing UK research into GM, which he said offers the "most wonderful opportunities to improve human health."

The CST was asked by Prime Minister David Cameron for the latest evidence on the risks and benefits of GM technologies in agriculture, and for advice on UK and EU regulation.

In turn, it commissioned a group of leading plant scientists from Rothamsted Research, The Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University to make recommendations to the prime minister.

The scientists say they are being held back by strict EU regulations - based on the principle that GM crops are inherently more dangerous than conventionally-bred varieties.

Only two GM varieties have been licensed for commercial harvest in Europe - despite the fact that 12% of the world's arable land is cultivating GM crops.

The CST report argues GM crops have now been shown to be safe - and may be necessary in future for Britain to grow its own food supply, rather than depending on imports.

It says the UK should regulate commercial GM varieties of wheat and potatoes based on their individual benefits and risks - rather than follow the EU's blanket approach.

It also recommends a new programme of publicly-funded field trials to test "public good" GM crop varieties, which it calls "PubGM".

"Public good" traits could include nutritional enhancement, such as antioxidants in tomatoes, or vitamin A in "Golden Rice".

They could also include "climate-proofing" properties such as drought resistance or heat resistance.

"With PubGM, seed companies, consumers and regulators will be able to decide, based on results of experiments, whether a GM trait has proved its worth in UK crops under UK conditions," said Professor Jonathan Jones from The Sainsbury Laboratory, one of the report's authors.

GM purple tomatoes GM purple tomatoes high in antioxidants were created in the UK but tested in Canada

Sir Mark Walport, chief scientific adviser and CST co-chair, said: "We take it for granted that because our shelves in supermarkets are heaving with food there are no problems in food security. But there are.

"We're part of a global food market. Competition is likely to increase. The world is already malnourished and the population is growing.

"The challenge is to get more yield from the same area. GM is not a magic bullet, but it is one of a range of technologies that we should consider."

The report was welcomed by Dr Julian Little, chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), which represents companies including BASF, Monsanto and Syngenta.

"Current EU regulation has moved in the direction of increasing political influence and undermining science.

"Europe risks being left behind and it therefore remains essential that action is taken to address the dysfunctional EU approvals process so that UK farmers may, in the future, be able to realise the potential of great British biotechnology research right here in the UK."

But the environmental group Friends of the Earth say GM will not make food more affordable or sustainable.

"GM crops have been hugely over-hyped. Despite decades of research they have failed to deliver the benefits they have promised - and have been an expensive distraction from real solutions to the challenges we face," said senior food campaigner Vicki Hird.

"Our food production system needs a radical overhaul to ensure everyone has access to healthy, affordable food that doesn't wreck the planet - but putting more power into the hands of multi-nationals is not the answer."

Prof Cathie Martin, of the John Innes Centre, one of the creators of GM purple tomatoes, said changing regulations would help scientists make progress with GM varieties that benefit society.

She told BBC News: "It takes 10 years to get European regulators to approve a new GM trial, and costs in the order of $150m. How can any small company do that?"

"NGOs complain that GM only benefits multinational companies - but that's because they're the only ones who can afford it. We can't afford to trial crops for the public good.

"If this promotes field trials where you can look at something for the public good that would be fantastic."

Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, said: "This report, like many focussing on GM technology, is framed around the question 'how can science and technology help secure global food supplies'.

"Instead we need to ask people at the sharp end of food insecurity what can be done - by scientists and also by others - to help fix the food system.

"In a resource-constrained world where a billion people go to bed hungry and a billion are obese, we must also tackle the scandal of food waste, as well as the issue of what we eat."

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