John Heritage - biochemistry and molecular
Dr Heritage is a member of the Government's
advisory committe on novel foods and processes
went to one of the meetings as part of the
great GM debate, and found them very badly
organised. Its 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. Its
important to realise the psychological importance
of food. People have an almost spiritual relationship
to their food: its no coincidence that
many religious laws are based around food,
from the Hindus sacred cows to hallal
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, were not sure what the risks
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 doesnt
translate into consumer behaviour. In fact,
the action of the supermarkets contributed
to anti-GM feelings the assumption
was that if theyd been pulled, it was
because there was something wrong with them,
they were potentially dangerous.
I think that in Europe, the future doesnt
look good in the medium-term: GM is unlikely
to be adopted. Weve gone for the wrong
sort of crops weve 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. Thats
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 theres less waste. But most applications
for approval are for insect resistance or
herbicide tolerance. Id like to see
products with benefits from consumers, as
then its possible GM would have a stronger
Given whats 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 didnt 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 shouldnt
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 dont 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 isnt 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 its
not frankenstein food. The extremes in the
debate equally share the blame for the mess