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?


Professor Peter Meyer – biology
Professor Meyer works in the centre for plant sciences

One of the findings of the public debate on GM – if you can call it ‘public’ – was that the more people know about GM, the more they oppose it. This hasn’t been our experience with students, as generally when students understand the detail around GM crops, they can’t understand why there’s so much fuss about them.

There’s no proof that GM poses any danger to health. The fact that GM is seen as being a monopoly by big business is another issue: lots of the opposition to GM is actually about opposition to this. But the anti-GM lobby knew they couldn’t successfully oppose GM on this basis, so they’ve made the debate one about ‘dangerous’ science, which plays on public fears to gain public support.

The public has no problem with GM in medicine – there they see the benefits. But they don’t see the benefits in food. They already get the food they need in the supermarket, so what will GM bring them?

The way to look at the issue is to see it as a ‘novel’ technology that Europe needs in order to compete. In the US, GM is seen as providing better quality food with less chemical input. The chemical options are running out. But that issue doesn’t seem to have got the coverage in Europe – that area of the debate hasn’t filtered through.

It’s also a big issue for Asia, especially China. There a major problem is not only feeding their population, but also the pollution caused by growing such huge quantities of food. Too many chemicals are polluting their water supply already. This new technology could do away with the old chemical usage.

We’re complacent in Europe. We subsidise agriculture and produce a surplus, so don’t see a need for GM technology. The US views it differently: they export their excess and use it as a tool for them to ‘do politics’ with other countries. The EU doesn’t use food in this way.

UK government have seen the potential advantages in GM and the risk of not being involved – if we miss the boat, the US and Asia will take the advantage. We are under a GM moritorium, while others are progressing.

We need to move the debate away from simply pro or anti GM. GM technology is like any other technology, like computers for example. Nobody would consider being for or against computers per se, but you could oppose using computers in certain situations. We need to be discussing individual uses of the technology, not banning it outright.

The main problems with GM is that there is no obvious benefit to the consumer and we are stuck within a polarised simplistic debate. On one hand you have the anti-GM lobby saying everything about GM is bad, and on the other the biotechnology companies saying everything about GM is brilliant. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

There are good things which GM can provide: extra nutritional value, better quality of food, and less chemicals. The technology has many useful applications. Once that’s accepted, it’s clear we need to look at each case individually.

I’m not sure about what the future holds except that I’m sure GM is an important technology, that will be used by others, in ways we probably don’t even know yet.

If we just reject GM per se, then no one will bother to listen to us on the issue, we’ll be unable to contribute to the wider debate about its pros and cons.

As to the long-term future of GM in the UK – if things go on as they are, it has no future.


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