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?

 

The clock is ticking for GM crops. As Secretary of State for the environment, Margaret Beckett, considers what the Government should do next, we asked Leeds researchers in areas as diverse as environment, medicine, philosophy, economics and of course biology, to give their views.

Oilseed rapeLast month saw the report from the GM Nation? debate to test public attitudes. The response was overwhelmingly negative, with over 85 per cent hostile to GM foods and becoming more so the more they learned about them. This month it was the findings from the farm-scale trials, showing that for both oilseed rape and sugar beet, the chemicals used with herbicide-resistant GM strains had a worse effect on biodiversity than those used with conventional crops. For maize, the opposite was true, but the conventional herbicide used is so toxic it’s likely to be banned in Europe.

Fields of contention – oilseed rape (left) is one GM crop the Government is unlikely to sanction for commercial use

Some of the academics giving their views here work in plant biology or medical genetics. Others approach the question from other perspectives, yet the responses are surprisingly similar. Most understand the public’s concern, though doubts are voiced as to whether the Government’s ‘national debate’ was truly representative. The fact that the current round of GM products are tailored for producers is seen as key: some view this as a reason to ban them; others believe better, consumer-focused crops won’t be far behind.

The general mood, however, is gloomy. Most believe that the Government will not sanction GM crops and although some feel this decision would be right, others see it as short-sighted, signalling the death knell for GM in Europe. All call for more research, to identify the full potential of the technology and ensure its safe application.

The researchers were asked to comment on public attitudes to GM crops and suggest what the Government might do next. Only excerpts are printed here – full responses are on the web at http://reporter.leeds.ac.uk

 

Dr John Heritage* (biochemistry & molecular biology) – The sensitivities of the public are understandable, as food has great psychological importance. People have an almost spiritual relationship with food. Indeed most religions have laws covering food, be it sacred cows or hallal and kosher. People are naturally concerned about what they put in their bodies, but whether the risks they fear in relation to GM are real is another matter.

Unfortunately the industry seems to have gone for the wrong sort of GM crops, those with a clear benefit to producers not consumers. The technology has the potential to offer great advantages, but we need to pick the right crops, with the right qualities, and educate the public that it’s not Frankenstein food. I’d like to see products with consumer benefits as this would give the technology a stronger future.

The extremes in the debate – the biotech industry and the green lobby – have each contributed to the polarisation of views and got us into this mess. Unfortunately, it’s the scientists working in this field who are stuck in the middle. //full text

 

Dr Alison Baker* (biochemistry & molecular biology) – The GM Nation? debate was an important exercise, but how representative was it? 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. This highlights the need for better, more balanced information. How many people are aware that rigorous assessment for health and environmental impact is mandatory for all GM crops but no conventional or organic crops are tested in this way? The public needs to be better educated in risk perception as a whole. We have witnessed hysteria not only over GM foods, but also MMR vaccines, often exacerbated by irresponsible, sensational reporting.

In the area of food safety, public perception has not been helped by the spectacular Government incompetence over salmonella, BSE and foot and mouth. Although BSE and GM are unrelated, they are linked in the minds of many. 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. //full text

 

Dr Chris Megone* (philosophy) – My impression is that the overriding repsonse to the GM Nation? debate was that the public wanted more information about GM food and felt insufficiently informed to give a reasoned response to the inquiry. I think this is a correct public perception. This is a difficult area. Whilst there will be risks attached to any new technology, I suspect that most lay people like myself know little about any of the risks, that they vary considerably from one crop to another and that a sensible discussion requires a reasonable model for the ethical assessment of risk.

GM crops shouldn’t be ruled out completely, but we need more informed public debate, and a willingness to embrace the technology if the risks seem reasonable. This requires a full and careful airing of risks and benefits. The Government should set up something along the lines of a Royal Commission to advise parliament, but at the same time make moves to stimulate further public debate through more interdisciplinary discussion, in universities for example. //full text

 

Dr Andrew Dougill (environment) – The GM Nation? debate found that as people engage more with the issue, the more intense their concerns become, so it seems very unlikely that any Government-led awareness initiative could reduce public scepticism and hostility.

As the economic benefits to crop production in the UK appear limited to a very narrow range of crops and the environmental consequences remain uncertain, I see no long-term commercial future for GM crops in the UK. The key point is that GM crops are not required to meet consumer needs (let alone wants) in the UK.

The Government should listen to the public and prevent the commercialisation of GM crop growth. To do otherwise would be to ignore society’s view and negate the value of future public attitude surveys. //full text

 

Professor Peter Meyer* (biology) – 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.

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

GM is just a new technology, which we need to be part of in order to compete economically with the US, but also with India and China, who are moving fast in this area. If we reject GM, then no one will bother to listen to us on the issue, we’ll be unable to contribute to the wider debate.

We’re complacent in Europe. We subsidise agriculture and produce a surplus, so don’t see a need for GM technology. But individual applications of GM technology offer enormous potential to ensure safe and efficient crop production while reducing the input of agrochemicals. The long-term future of GM in the UK? If things go on as they are, there is none. //full text

 

John Bowers* (LUBS) – Whatever the potential of GM technology, GM crops are currently designed by large corporations to sell their pesticides and to monopolise the markets in seeds to the detriment, inter alia, of largely Third World farmers who produce their own. I think the current set of GM products should be banned, but I don’t feel this would seriously reduce the possibility of future genuine breakthroughs in GM technology that would increase world food security.

I’m not concerned about the effects of eating GM crops on human health. It’s amazing how wide a range of things humans can manage to eat. However, I am very concerned with the impact of GM crops on the biodiversity of the farmed environment.
At present, I see no social benefits of current GM products and the potential for large social costs. For my money, that gives a cast iron case for banning them. If the Government believes the technology has positive potential for human welfare, then it should fund the research. //full text

 

Dr Louise Coletta (molecular medicine) – I think the public is right to be sceptical about GM crops and there is no scientific evidence to suggest otherwise. A major difference between plant GM and GM modification of animals is that plants cannot be separated from the wider environment. In animals, it is a strict condition that GM strains are not released into the environment.
I think trials of food and plant crops grown in the outside uncontrolled environment should be stopped. Controlled scientific experiments (in a controlled environment) could continue as should experiments to look at the safety of GM foods following ingestion in humans and animals. //full text

 
 


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