If government and industry are to overcome unfounded opposition to genetic modification (GM) technologies, they should clearly communicate the challenges facing sustainable food production, the Prime Minister’s scientific advisers have claimed.
“Most consumers of food are unaware of the challenges of food production and distribution. It would help if food producers and retailers were more open about these challenges,” Sir Mark Walport and Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, chairman and co-chair of the Council for Science and Technology, stressed in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron published on Friday (March 14).
“The case must be made that food developed from GM is the product of sustainable agriculture, is of the highest nutritional quality, and can meet the needs of communities in different parts of the world.”
They called for the legal stranglehold hampering GM crop trials to be broken and for research to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, rather than being greeted by blanket acceptance or rejection.
“… It is not accurate or helpful to talk about GM generically,” they said. “Advocates and opponents have both, at times, been guilty of over-generalisation. The message must be that each genetically modified plant needs to be considered specifically.
“GM is neither intrinsically safe nor unsafe. The questions are always: what plant? What genetic modification? For what purpose?”
Relaxation of rules
The scientists claimed the weight of scientific evidence was in favour of the safety of GM crop science and argued for a relaxation of rules surrounding trials on that basis. That call backed the conclusions of the European Academies Science Advisory Council, they said.
“We should have confidence in the consensus on the scientific evidence which concludes that, when properly controlled, GM products are as safe as their conventional counterparts.”
However, they recognised consumer opposition to GM was usually prompted either by lack of belief in the scientific evidence backing it or by lack of trust in the motives behind it.
They cited plant science centre Rothamstead Institute’s achievements using various technologies to increase wheat yields. It was also using GM to cultivate aphid-resistant crops to cut pesticide use and boost production further, they added.
‘One of many technologies’
The scientists also argued GM supporters should not exaggerate its benefits. “GM is just one of many technologies that we need to apply alongside good governance and regulation to achieve the combined aims of feeding global populations and good stewardship of our planetary environment.
“Other key approaches include the application of genomics for more effective plant breeding, the development of selective herbicides and pesticides, better fertilisers, improving our soil science, and more efficient and effective irrigation.”
They acknowledged many people distrusted GM development because it would lead to multinational corporations having too much control over the food chain. “An automatic association of the concept of GM with multinational corporations needs to be challenged.
“The application of philanthropic funding by the Gates Foundation for GM research of direct benefit to small farmers is a case in point.”
Commenting on the letter, Katharine Vickery, partner and food and drink sector expert at law firm Eversheds, said the government “will need to work towards shifting consumer attitudes to purchasing products containing GM materials”.
“This will require a significant degree of engagement with the public, who are already acutely aware of what is in their food thanks to the horsemeat scandal and high levels of food fraud,” she added.