Open Eye: Crops create food for thought

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The Independent Online
For millennia, mankind has asked one simple question about food - will there be enough of it? Cults, festivals and religions grew up around bountiful harvests and well stocked barns. As we approach a new Millennium however, unprecedented doubts have grown about whether many foodstuffs are actually 'safe' to eat. Britain in particular has had a decade of scares about salmonella, botulism, E-coli and mad cows.

With the emergence of transgenic crops and, as a result, genetically- modified foodstuffs, these scare controversies look set to go worldwide.

In the UK itself, current small scale field trials of oil seed rape have moved from scientific to direct farm management and there has been a growth of 'direct action' involving protesters tearing up transgenic crops.

But, as the tornado of international concern cuts through the prairies, several OU researchers have come to the fore in developing intellectual storm shelters for clear-headed debate. And that includes the thorny concept of 'safe'.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), from maize and soya to processed tomato paste, have seized the public imagination while arguments about regulation and choice have broken free from traditional technical forums.

In particular the issue has teed up a possible battle between Europe and the United States over the invasive nature of GM products.

But establishing the European Union's own stance on the cultivation of GMOs is no easy matter. The emotive issue of food safety is one where individual nation states will jealously guard their right to regulate and there are many different standards of measurement.

The Commission of the EU is now revising its nine-year old directive, 90/220, which governs transgenic crops. Against this background, a unique seminar took place last month, bringing together big hitters in the international debate and from European decision makers.

It was the culmination of a key international, multi-disciplinary 'ELSA' (ethics, legal and socio-economic aspects of biotechnology) research project led by the Open University and funded by the European Commission's research directorate (DG XII).

Safety regulation of transgenic crops: Completing the internal market, is the prosaic title for work which could fundamentally rewrite the rules for future debate about food safety. The key concept to emerge, Precautionary commercialisation does not sound any sexier.

Properly designed, however, it offers the chance to move forward with some commercial development of transgenic crops linked to post market monitoring to check for adverse effects. It could mean a balance between the dangers of unfettered production and a possibly unworkable moratorium.

The project group is co-ordinated by the OU's Susan Carr, David Wield and Les Levidow, from the Centre for Complexity and Change in the Faculty of Technology.

It has representatives from Edinburgh University and nine other European countries embracing science and technology, philosophy and the social sciences.

Together, they have sought to identify how commercial production, regulation, predictability and acceptability can be balanced.

In their final report they identified, for example, crucial areas where the 90/220 directive was unclear or being interpreted differently.

These included: disputes over weed control, implications of herbicide tolerant crops, different baselines for environmental impacts, varied use of sustainable agriculture as a reference point, and differences over whether the loss of insect resistance was an 'adverse effect'.

The seminar pulled in senior European and national officials, multi-national agri-business executives, pressure groups and biotechnology experts.

Comprehensively upstaged by the mass resignation of the EU's commissioners, it stuck to the plot and looked at three scenarios - a moratorium on production, an abandonment of the current directive, and at amendments to it.

The group working on an amended directive reportedly made more progress than those going for a moratorium or abandonment of it. But there were significant contributions from these latter two workshops.

The project overall has asked questions about how each country is affected by commercialisation, how does regulation adapt and how are questions opened up about the acceptability of potential effects. The main objective - through the report and the seminar - is to inform policy debates on the most appropriate form of EU safety regulation for the commercial use of transgenic crops.

Just three per cent of DG XII's researching is earmarked for ELSA - the really sticky ones. This ring-fenced resource is to be returned to the common pot in future, possibly diminishing the opportunity to explore the wider aspects of GMOs and related issues.

David Wield emphasises the value of the work: "What makes us unique, is that much existing research hasn't directly related to a particular policy aspect of GMOs."

Two days after the seminar a government minister on Radio Four's Today programme was asked, "Should we eat GM food - yes or no?"

Dr Wield says this is where the 'precautionary principle' is coming to the fore. "There are some sciences and technologies where we just don't know, and it make sense to be careful.

"We have been carefully looking at national diversities on GM food. At the start of this project there was a lot of emphasis on centrally regulating. But we believe the framework has to be flexible: you have to find ways to learn. And we have to see the precautionary principle not generally but on a case by case basis."

She is optimistic, though, about the debate widening and being accessible to the general public - for whom, after all, the food is intended.

"I have been impressed by some of the public 'consensus conferences' which have taken place where a lay panel has been given some background and been able to ask questions.

"They have come up with sensible recommendations. I do not like it when the public view is dismissed because they don't know enough."

Sooner or later someone was going to point out that further scientific research rarely settles contemporary questions of safety and risk assessment. A different form of public decision making, transparent and accessible, is needed.

The ground rules will be complex and subject to further huge international debate. It is a process which has Open University expertise at its heart as these challenging new ideas emerge.