GM food: so, what’s holding us back?
An event this week at the London Science Museum’s Dana Centre offered a chance to reflect on where we are with GM technology. There seems even less reason than before effectively to ban GM food in the EU.
‘Genetically Modified Food: Where Are We Now?’ was a public event at the Dana Centre on 14 June, featuring Dr Jack Stilgoe, former Senior Policy Advisor at the Royal Society, Dr Wendy Harwood from the Department of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre and Dr Cathie Martin from the Department of Metabolic Biology, also at the John Innes Centre.
Stilgoe reflected on the policy situation, noting that in the US the question of GM food is driven pretty much solely by the scientific evidence, whereas in the EU social concerns were more prominent. Stilgoe argued that GM was going to be very important in feeding the world in the future, but was by no means sufficient to solve world hunger. Harwood brought us up to date on the latest steps in the creation of new GM varieties, noting that new techniques offered far greater control over the process. In the past, single genes were added to plants in a fairly hit-and-miss fashion. Now, there was greater control over where the genes were added to the DNA and also allowing for multiple genes to be added at once - something very useful for properties of plants that are controlled by more than one gene. Martin showed off her nutrient-rich tomatoes, which she wasn’t allowed to let us even try, showing the frustration of scientists at the fact that new and useful features could be added to crops, but getting regulatory approval was both very expensive and uncertain.
This precautionary, better-safe-than-sorry approach has real consequences. Firstly, it prevents us from enjoying more productive, less input-intensive foods. Secondly, it is already making our food more expensive. As Martin noted, most of the world’s soya is now GM. But because European farmers are allowed to use GM-soya to feed animals, more expensive non-GM fodder must be used, bumping up the price of meat. While many other parts of the world are embracing GM crops, Europe lags behind. Thirdly, Martin said that farmers having problems with ‘superweeds’ were not generally asking for non-GM crops, but for greater herbicide resistance, because this allows no-till agriculture which in turn protects soils. So, obsessing about GM may be bad for Europe’s environment.
While green campaigners have often touted their pro-science credentials in recent years over climate change, it is clear that greens are fair-weather friends of science. Crop scientists seem to be overwhelmingly of the view that GM is good news. But with Europe’s regulators obsessed with risk, no doubt encouraged by green lobbying, there seems little chance that EU countries will get the chance to catch up with the rest of the world any time soon.