22 January 2003
STUNG INTO ACTION
The Guardian, Wednesday January 22, 2003
As a conference backed by the Guardian prepares to kick-start real debate on the growing of GM crops in Britain, scientist Sue Meyer warns the government it must listen to public opinion, or risk a backlash
This year, the government must decide whether to allow the first genetically modified crops to be grown commercially in the UK. The farm-scale trials, intended to examine the impact on biodiversity of herbicide-tolerant GM crops, are coming to an end, and with them the industry's voluntary moratorium. But public concern remains high.
The government has promised a public debate about the future of GM crops. But who will really decide if we eat GM food or if GM crops are grown in the British countryside? And on what basis will the decision be made? Will the public be able to contribute to the debate and will its views be taken seriously?
At the moment, the US government believes it has more right than the British public to determine what we can and cannot choose to eat. It continues to threaten to bring a World Trade Organisation action against the European Union if it insists on labelling food derived from GM crops. According to Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative, denying choice to consumers is the only scientifically defensible option, and European scepticism is "Luddite" and "anti-science".
However, the US is not alone. The UK has also shown little commitment to choice. The government's food standards agency lobbied against plans for comprehensive GM labelling and traceability. It dubbed the moves a "cheats' charter" with no scientific justification. This is despite the fact that most British food producers already have traceability schemes in place to meet consumer demand for non-GM food. Following the BSE outbreak, the importance of recording the movement of all foodstuffs now underpins EU food legislation to allow for product recall, should problems arise.
In addition to labelling, consumer choice depends on a supply of non-GM food. Establishing the conditions for co-existence between GM and non-GM farming is a prerequisite, but, as yet, neither Europe nor Britain has clear plans on how this can be achieved.
Scientific understanding of pollen movement and gene flow continues to evolve. Experimental trials have been poor predictors of what will happen with commercial growing. To prevent contamination of non-GM and organic crops, separation distances of several hundred metres (maybe more) will be needed for some crops, especially oilseed rape. However, while scientists struggle to model pollen movement accurately, acceptable levels of contamination are yet to be resolved.
Scientific advisers to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs do not consider the expected levels of gene flow to be significant in environmental or human safety terms. They are confident they have assessed the risks adequately and that any problems with "superweeds" could be managed with other herbicides. Meanwhile, Tony Blair is worried about the image and position of British science if people question or reject GM foods.
What point, you might ask, is a public debate when these powerful interests have claimed the scientific justification as theirs. Will they really listen to public opinion? A dose of democracy is likely to be an unnerving prospect for those who are used to asserting the scientific high ground and defending it with secrecy and commercial confidentiality. A thorough debate, however, that takes full account of the views of the public would make future decisions on GM policy more robust in all respects: scientific, economic and social.
Recognising that science alone could not resolve all the issues at stake, the government's strategic advisers on biotechnology - the agriculture and environment biotechnology commission - have recommended that a public debate should form part of the decision making process. The controversial farm-scale trials, the results of which are due in July, will still leave uncertainties and judgments to be made.
Through the trial crops of sugar beet, maize and oilseed rape scientists are comparing the numbers of weeds, insects, caterpillars of butterflies, moths and sawflies, beetles, bees, butterflies and snails with non-GM fields. Will biodiversity be greater with GM crops or with conventional farming methods?
While the US and many of Britain's own scientific advisers are bullish about the adequacy of risk assessments, questions continue to be raised about their scope and ability to predict impacts. This month, the Scottish parliament's health and community care committee published fresh concerns about whether the public health dimensions of GM crop trials had been properly investigated. A large body of scientific literature also documents the limitations of risk assessments, the results of which - BSE, chemical pollutants, radioactivity - the public are all too aware.
The possibility that assumptions surrounding safety may prove mistaken and the institutional tendency to deny that unpleasant surprises may arise are particularly significant in causing public anxiety and suspicion about GM foods.
This has been compounded by their rapid introduction and global expansion over the past six years, without effective monitoring to examine whether basic assumptions made in risk assessments are justified. Clearly, this benefits the biotechnology industry (and US trade interests) at the expense of robust scientific inquiry.
The science of GM crops is intertwined with economics, trade issues and how best to produce food sustainably. While rarely acknowledged, judgments about the science, the importance of what is and is not known, and what is left out and included in risk assessments are shaped by these wider dimensions. Both the public and private sectors have made scientific and financial commitments to GM crop production, leaving other areas of scientific inquiry and food production systems neglected.
At the same time, allowing patents on genes, crops and seed has changed the face of the global seed market by facilitating the entry of the agrochemical industry. Some argue this is all to the good - the benefits of increased crop productivity and industrial competitiveness outweigh the risks of gene flow and contamination - but there is little evidence that the public shares this view. As far as the public is concerned, science can inform decisions but not make them and should be considered in the wider context.
As part of the process of the public debate, however, the government has set up parallel reviews to examine the science and economics of GM crops as if they were separate from each other and from the broader issues of politics, consumer choice and trade.
The concern is that these other strands will be used to "reassure" the public - the experts' assessments will demonstrate the safety of GM crops, hiding their own social and economic judgments, and wider questions will be discounted. By asking for a report on the public debate to be completed by the end of June, the government has also isolated the biodiversity findings of the farm-scale trials - due in July - from active public scrutiny.
To persuade the public that it is acting in good faith, the government should make a commitment that the outcomes of the debate will shape the terms and conditions under which it decides to go ahead with GM crops or not. If it reverts to claims that the decisions are about science alone, the public simply will not trust them.
1997: Greenpeace reveals the importation of GM soybeans mixed with conventional beans.
1998: The government announces the start of farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) of GM crops to determine their impact on biodiversity. Industry agrees a voluntary moratorium.
1999: Most supermarkets and food producers in the UK remove GM ingredients from products.
2000: Negotiations continue in Europe to tighten environmental safety rules and introduce the comprehensive labelling of GM derived food and feed.
2001: The agriculture and environment biotechnology commission publishes a report concluding that the outcome of FSEs alone cannot form the basis of a decision on the commercialisation of GM foods. Calls for a public debate.
Autumn 2002: The government accepts the need for a public debate but makes no commitment to respond to its outcomes. Funding is seriously limited and plans are not finalised by the end of the year. Studies of economics by the government's strategy unit and science by the chief scientist are announced.
January 2003: The US threatens to take action at the World Trade Organisation.
End of June 2003: Scheduled deadline for reports on public debate, science and economics.
Mid-July 2003: Results of FSEs to be published.
Autumn 2003: Government decision on commercialisation expected.
Spring 2004: First date at which GM crops -herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize - could be grown in Britain.
Sue Meyer is director of GeneWatch UK, which has joined with Five Year Freeze, Elm Farm Research Centre and Unilever, in association with the Guardian, to host a major conference on the use of GM crops and food in Britain. Gene Futures is at the Royal Society of Arts, London, on February 11. Individuals £15; organisations £45. To book, phone 01298 872531 or visit http://www.genewatch.org