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 John Heritage - biochemistry and molecular biology
Dr Heritage is a member of the Government's advisory committe on novel foods and processes

I went to one of the meetings as part of the great GM debate, and found them very badly organised. It’s not surprising, given the way the meetings were run that the entirely negative viewpoint came out overall.

For example, people were allowed to sit at random, which meant like-minded people who perhaps knew each other sat at the same table, and so there was little cross-over or proper debate between the two ‘sides’. Also very few ordinary ‘members of the public’ were involved: the meeting I attended was full of anti-GM campaigners and those involved in research, industry or farming.

The sensitivities of the public are of course, understandable. We have a long history of food scares, from ‘listeria hysteria’ to salmonella to BSE and foot and mouth. It’s important to realise the psychological importance of food. People have an almost spiritual relationship to their food: it’s no coincidence that many religious laws are based around food, from the Hindus’ sacred cows to hallal or kosher.

People have a natural concern about what they put into their bodies.

Whether the risks they fear in relation to GM are real, is another matter. For example: people who went to the meeting on GM mainly drove there, which is far riskier than eating GM food. In reality we accept certain risks – even when, as in the case of mobile phones, we’re not sure what the risks are.

One of the main problems with GM, which is where the biotechnologists got it wrong is that it benefits producers but the public find it hard to see the benefits for them.

Yet before the supermarkets pulled GM tomatoes off the shelves, they were selling successfully, so supposed public hostility to GM doesn’t translate into consumer behaviour. In fact, the action of the supermarkets contributed to anti-GM feelings – the assumption was that if they’d been pulled, it was because there was something wrong with them, they were potentially dangerous.

I think that in Europe, the future doesn’t look good in the medium-term: GM is unlikely to be adopted. We’ve gone for the wrong sort of crops – we’ve chosen to work with crops which have a clear benefit to producers of herbicides, as growing those herbicide-resistant crops will ensure farmers have to use certain chemicals. That’s the problem – the same people make the herbicides who are developing the plants.

Tomatoes have already been approved – as a special case. The GM modification delays the softening of fruit so they remain firm, and there’s less waste. But most applications for approval are for insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. I’d like to see products with benefits from consumers, as then it’s possible GM would have a stronger future.

Given what’s likely to come out of the farm-scale evaluations and recent research published in Science, it seems the environmental impacts are higher than showed up on the small-scale evaluations. But of course, we have to acknowledge that all farming manipulates ecosystems.

As a tax-payer, rather than a scientist, I think the Government should carry on as they have been, ensurinig proper regulation of the new technology.

The economic report on GM didn’t strongly endorse GM crops either, and as there is so much public hostility, I think it would be wasting government money to continue investigating the issues involved. DEFRA or the FSA shouldn’t be spending money on primary research in this area. They should carry on rigorous regulation. But they basically have the information they need: the public don’t want GM.

Nevertheless, fundamental research needs to continue, funded through the research councils.

I feel pessimistic about the future: the biotech industry and the green lobby have contributed to the polarisation of views on the issue, with scientists stuck in the middle.

GM isn’t frankenstein food. The technology does hold the potential for advantages, but we need to pick the right crops, for the right things and educate the public that it’s not frankenstein food. The extremes in the debate equally share the blame for the mess we’re in.


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