EUROPE IS ploughing a lone furrow free of genetically modified foods, but are politicians to blame and do consumers deserve a choice?
In 2003 Farmers Weekly ran a cover story and five-page analysis about the GM debate. The piece started: “Much of the GM debate revolves around scientific data that even well-read consumers, farmers and journalists can struggle to grasp. So, who do you believe?”
Almost 12 years on and the “Frankenfoods” debate rumbles on, but the discourse is changing. “We pretend the debate is about science ... the science is very clear; really this is a debate about values,” the government’s chief scientific adviser said in November. Values and politics. Or perhaps the values of politicians?
Mark Walport was speaking to the Commons science and technology committee having just published a report asserting that the risks of genetic modification have been exaggerated. In particular, the EU’s “precautionary principle” has offered politicians the chance to block cultivation.
The report says: “The challenge for the European Union lies in the diverse national perspectives on different innovative technologies. This raises the question of whether it is desirable for innovation in the European Union to proceed at the speed of the most cautious. That is a question for politicians rather than for scientists. But what the scientists should expect is that the science is seriously considered.”
Science has very much been a part of the GM debate and needs to remain so. There are rigorous risk assessments in place – and rightly so. But does current regulation offer politicians an unfair advantage? For years GM crops have been grown outside Europe while it ploughs a lone, GM-free furrow.
Walport, in his evidence to the committee, referred to Europe as an “outlier” that is “not benefiting as much as it can from these inventions”. Others who were quizzed earlier in the inquiry (the committee is scrutinising Europe’s regulatory regime for GM) also flagged the political dimension and questioned whether a minority with an ideological opposition to the technology is denying the majority the choice.
There is one piece of evidence we haven’t really got yet, explained Professor Joyce Tait, director of the Innogen Institute at Edinburgh University, and that’s how GM would fair in the European market. Her hypothesis was that “more than 50%” of the EU public would buy GM food if it was labelled and on shelves.
That’s a big claim. There are indications that people – a small but growing proportion of people – could buy into the idea. Research by IGD last summer showed that safety concerns were as strong as ever – 57% were concerned, compared with 49% in 2008. However, the number of those strongly opposed to the technology has fallen, from 17% in 2003 to 14% in 2014 (see charts). The 2003 article in Farmers Weekly carried details of one poll showing that 33% of the public didn’t want any GM in their food at all.
Public perceptions of GM have undoubtedly been affected by the early debates and poor PR of big biotech. Some of the early promises have also failed to materialise (though a recent meta-analysis by German researchers showed that GM technology adoption has “reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68%”).
With food prices rising, opposition could also wane if GM provided better value. The GM tomato puree offered by Sainsbury’s in 1996 outsold the competition by two to one. It was 20% cheaper. The argument, once again, is that if the science safety boxes are ticked, and the political risk assessments are OK, then the market should decide. Even some of those in the organic lobby – traditionally the strongest opposition – have called for consumer choice.
Consumers and the UK government may be warming to GM, but at European level it remains a hot potato. In November MEPs voted to grant member states the right to ban cultivation of a GM crop – even if it has been authorised at EU level. The new European Commission president has also axed the position of chief scientific adviser (the incumbent, Anne Glover, supported GM).
With some biotech firms already having refocused their efforts on agronomic issues facing growers outside Europe, can farmers or consumers here afford another 11 years of debate?