March 9, 2015
Guest blog post by Professor Vivian Moses, Chairman of CropGen and visiting professor of biotechnology at King’s College and of biology at University College.
One of those dubious classic EU “compromises” was approved by the European Parliament last week in Brussels. While the responsibility for approving the cultivation of GM-crops from the safety perspective continues to rest with the European Food Safety Authority, individual Member States can, if they wish, choose to ban cultivation on their own territories for whatever spurious reason (or none at all) they care to put forward. Combine that with a bizarre reluctance by the Commission to pass already-cleared-for-safe-use products for import from North and South America and one could be forgiven for thinking that Europe and the European Union are not quite the happiest places for GM – and one might generally be correct – but there is a frail light in the darkness to suggest that all is not lost.
That light shines in the west, in the UK. For years the pro-GM/anti-GM arguments waged back and forth in the public arena of that country but, to tell the truth, apart from a tiny handful of GM opponents, everyone is fed up to the back teeth with the arguments and the population in general is neither much interested nor much caring. Put GM-products on the grocery shelves and people buy; suddenly change from non-GM poultry feed to the GM equivalent and nobody bats an eyelid. In the UK the focus of action lies not in the public arena so much as in the political one.
And that is where the glimmer of light has been shining. Government ministers, past and present, have been making pro-GM pronouncements more or less powerfully as the mood takes them. The coming general election may have little effect as the leaders of both main political parties, one of them no doubt destined to be prime minister following May 7th, have in recent years agreed there is a role for GM crop cultivation in the UK. That point was put very forcefully in 2013 by Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and echoed quite recently by his successor in the post. A few weeks ago Mr. Paterson said pretty much the same thing at a conference in South Africa where he slammed Greenpeace and other European NGOs for condemning technological advances like genetic engineering which he believes represents the future of agriculture and the well-being of the planet’s growing population.
Not everybody, even in the pro-GM camp, is entirely happy with the new EU arrangements allowing individual countries to pronounce bans essentially by choice. The agricultural biotechnology industry, whilst for the time being having given up on Europe from a commercial prospective, is concerned about a break in the continuity of the single market concept (not, of course, that that single market was ever completed: there may indeed be one market for the sale of goods but certainly not one for services). And one can sympathise with them. They are commercial operations, very much in favour of a unified market in which to operate. For them to have to develop and authorise individual varieties of GM-crops which might then be grown only in one or a few countries is not the sort of business model they would prefer.
But the new regulations could offer an opportunity to galvanise the UK public sector activities. Developments in that sector already well under way could lead to crops immediately applicable in UK agriculture: blight-resistant potatoes, herbicide-tolerant sugar beet, aphid-repellent wheat, high anti-oxidant tomatoes and no doubt others in the fullness of time. Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre, major public sector research organisations have been heavily involved with GM for years. Such developments might well benefit from a helping hand from industry to assist those in the public sector, perhaps inexperienced with the practicalities of the GM-approval processes, to find their way through the many regulatory mazes lying before them. In that way everyone would benefit: the public sector in getting their products approved, industry by helping to blaze an approvals trail at little cost to themselves, and the UK farming community as well as the UK population for the commercial and other benefits it would bring to them.
And don’t forget the knock-on effects that such UK action would have elsewhere in the world, not least in Africa, where countries would be encouraged to develop their own GM technologies comforted by the knowledge that at least in the UK their products could sympathetically be sold.
There does remain one reservation: these comments have referred throughout to “the UK”. But the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have had devolved to them local powers of banning GM-crops, and all have chosen to do so. So, rather than thinking “the UK” one should think “England”, that part of the UK comprising 53% of the total land area and home to about 85% of the population.
Who knows what the devolved governments would actually do if England went ahead with GM-crop cultivation? It may not be without significance that the Welsh Deputy Minister for Farming and Food in a recent written statement said “Whilst we take a precautionary approach, we also keep an open mind on future GM developments and plant breeding technologies.” All developments? Some developments? A straw in the wind? Time will tell.