The Reporter
Issue 493, 27 October 2003
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GM crops aren't close to the public's heart – but what do the academics think?


Dr Alison Baker – biochemistry and molecular biology
Dr Baker works in the centre for plant sciences

The process of creating a GM crop is far more controlled than conventional plant breeding. One or a small number of genes are transferred into the plant of interest as opposed to the random introduction of a large number of genes by conventional breeding. The location of the introduced genes and their pattern of expression can therefore be determined, also their stability over many generations. This cannot be done for conventional crops.

ALL GM crops go through rigorous assessment testing in the laboratory and, if not disrupted by activists, in the field. There is nothing inherently unsafe about the technology. GM crops have been widely grown in the US and China, as well as other countries, and consumed by many millions of people without ill effect. Each individual GM crop is (and should continue to be) assessed on a case-by case basis, balancing potential benefits with potential risks. NO conventional or organic foods are subject to similar rigorous testing. The overriding concern is that decisions should be taken on the basis of knowledge and not prejudice.

Conventional agriculture is very damaging to the environment. When evaluating the impact of GM crops it is important to compare like with like. GM has the potential to deliver environmental benefits (lower in put of agricultural chemicals and/or substitution of more biodegradable herbicides which do not persist in the soil). It offers excellent opportunities for chemical free production, as plants can be engineered to defend themselves against insect attack instead of relying on chemical treatment (conventional agriculture) or spraying with cultures of insecticidal bacteria (organic production). There has always been a trade off between technological advances in agriculture and environmental impact. This is nothing new; it has been going on for centuries. At least now we have the possibility to evaluate potential risks, and where they are considered unacceptable to devise solutions.

The perception that GM crops benefit producers has probably arisen because the initial traits introduced were for herbicide and pest resistance, which clearly do benefit producers. However consumers should benefit too from lower production costs and less use of agrochemicals which should feed through as lower price and better quality. Newer products will have more direct benefits to consumers, providing food with nutritional benefits (so called functional foods and nutraceuticals). Non-food uses of GM technology hold the promise of using plants as biofactories to produce all manner of compounds, from oils to replace non-renewable petrochemicals to medical/veterinary products which will be guaranteed to be free of human or animal viruses.
GM crops may also be of particular benefit to developing countries to ensure food security for their populations by producing crops that will grow in arid or saline conditions, correct nutritional deficiencies, or reduce the enormous post harvest losses to pests.

In the current negative climate it would be a mistake to impose commercial growing of GM crops in the UK. In the GM nation debate people wanted more information, so more research, especially on biosafety aspects should be conducted and widely publicised. Clearly labelled GM products should be widely available in the shops to allow consumer choice. Some products like tomato puree from GM tomatoes used to be available but were unilaterally removed by the supermarkets, quoting ‘public opinion’ although these products were clearly labelled and sold well. Hopefully through familiarity and education, people will become more accepting of this technology and understanding of its benefits.

How sceptical is the public? The GM nation debate was an important exercise but how representative was it? It could have been much more widely advertised. Obviously those with strong opinions used the exercise to express them. The sample of the general population was less emphatic and felt they did not know enough about GM. Their prevailing mood was one of uncertainty. This highlights the need for better, more balanced information.

The public need to be better educated in risk perception as a whole. We have witnessed hysteria not only over GM foods but also issues such as the MMR vaccine. This is often exacerbated by irresponsible, sensational reporting. These issues are never black and white but require the public to engage with complex issues. The media have a very important role in providing ordinary people who are neither scientists, nor activists, with a balanced summary of the arguments to help them in forming opinions and making decisions. In the area of food safety, public perception has not been helped by the spectacular incompetence of successive governments over issues such as salmonella in eggs, BSE and foot and mouth. BSE and GM are linked in many people’s minds, even though they are scientifically completely unrelated issues.

The Government should also ponder that by forcing scientists to work more closely with industry in the effort to see technology transferred from the lab to the market place, scientists have been perceived to lose independence. As many people have become more distrusting of Government, they now seem to look to pressure groups for an ‘independent’ point of view. These groups have their own agendas (which do not necessarily equate to the broader public interest) and misrepresent information to support these agendas.


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