Expert View: GM and the real food for thought

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The Independent Online

On Tuesday the National GM Debate was launched in Birmingham. At the first evening of the planned six-week discussion, which attracted some 180 participants, the organisers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were rather encouraged by it all. However, it remains to be proved that the debate is actually needed.

The Government has argued that it is - to ensure public involvement in the decision on whether GM crops should be commercialised. However, given its track record so far, it is not clear that the Government really wants the public to participate. It is putting £500,000 into this discussion, which is a small amount of funding (at least compared to the Netherlands).

It is also unclear whether the public wants this debate. Most people turning up at the Birmingham event, and I suspect in the future ones as well, were representatives from pressure groups, with a scattering of business interests. Lay members of the public were thin on the ground.

Yes, we have all heard that Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace et al are supposed to represent the public interest, but do they really? In this and other debates, the public, no matter how much persuasion is coming from government organisations (and in this case it is minimal), simply do not want to take part; after work, they would prefer to relax with their families.

Indeed, previous research has shown that the people most willing to be engaged in these debates are those with time on their hands - students, pensioners, the unemployed - and not the professional classes whom the Government wants to win over.

However, if the debate really is needed, what will it achieve? Arguably not very much. To be fair, the GM controversy is no longer a scientific debate but much more of a political one. GM food is not going to harm you - look at the millions of Americans who have been exposed to it for years now. Although the scientific verdict is still awaited as to whether GM food will have an adverse impact on ecosystems, the evidence for this, at least from the US, appears to be minimal.

No, the debate on GM foods in Europe has become a political one for three particular reasons. First, the public no longer trusts our regulators. People take the view that the watchdogs are incompetent (foot and mouth disease) or liars (mad cow disease), so why should we now trust them when they say that GM food is safe?

Second, the public objects to being force-fed food that they do not need or want. GM crops lead to productivity and efficiency gains for farmers, in the reduced need for pesticides and the like. But they do not primarily lead to better-quality goods. There is a surplus of agricultural produce in Europe at the moment, so why should we start to become even more efficient so we have even bigger grain mountains? The Common Agricultural Policy is expensive enough as it is.

Finally, many policymakers (albeit that Tony Blair and co do not seem to be among them) feel the same way.

That is the reason why members of the European Parliament are arguing for labelling. They know full well, for the reasons mentioned above, that if GM food is labelled (and goodness knows what would be an acceptable GM trace level), no one will buy it anyway.

So what should the Government do? Arguably, the debate should be halted because it will not lead to anything concrete. Instead, the funding could be used for better educating regulators in risk communication, so helping them to re-establish public and stakeholder trust.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director of the King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College, London.