There is no compelling evidence to suggest that GM crops are any more dangerous to humans, animals or the environment than conventionally farmed food and the time has come for Europe to be stripped of its obstructive control of the technology, senior scientists have advised the Prime Minister.
The case to press ahead with introducing GM crops both here and overseas has become overwhelming given the scale of the potential food shortages facing humanity in the coming decades – despite the British public being largely unaware of the impending crisis, they said.
Government science advisers have warned that European rules blocking GM crops are no longer fit for purpose and Britain should be allowed to decide for itself whether genetically modified crops should be grown in the UK given the many benefits that they could bring in terms of sustainable food production.
“We take it for granted that because our supermarket shelves are heaving with food that there are no problems with food security, but there are problems with food security around the world,” Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientist, said yesterday.
“We have limited agricultural land for growing food in the UK, yet we are part of a global food market and there is competition for limited resources and that is likely to increase,” he said
“So the challenge is to get more from existing land in a sustainable way or face the alternative which is that people will go unfed, or we’ll have to bring more wilderness land into cultivation,” he added.
GM technology is one of the tools that could help farmers around the world produce food sustainably for a growing population, but in Europe the technology has been effectively blocked by the EU’s inappropriate regulatory process, Sir Mark said.
“We’re asking for regulations to be fit for purpose – we need appropriate regulation,” he said.
Only one GM plant is currently grown commercially in Europe – a type of GM maize grown mostly in Spain. EU red tape has hampered the introduction of many other GM crops carrying beneficial traits not seen in conventionally-bred varieties, the scientists said.
A report to the Council for Science and Technology, which advises David Cameron on scientific developments, warned that Britain and Europe are falling behind other parts of the world where GM crops have been embraced. It calls for the wholesale reorganisation of the way that the crops are assessed by the EU.
In a letter to the Prime Minster, Sir Mark Walport and Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, who co-chairs the council with Sir Mark, urge the government to seek the reform of EU rules governing the acceptance of GM crops, or risk seeing the UK being left behind by non-Europeans.
“Debate and decision-making within Europe present a particular challenge. Current EU regulatory and market access problems are hampering the development of crops for EU markets and farmers,” the scientists write.
“The longer the EU continues to oppose GM whilst the rest of the world adopts it, the greater the risk that EU agriculture will become uncompetitive, especially as more GM crops and traits are commercialised successfully elsewhere,” they said.
Professor Sir David Baulcombe of Cambridge University, one of the five leading plant scientists who co-authored the report, called for research and development of GM crops to be stepped up so that they could be grown both in the UK and oversees, notably Africa where increased food production is needed most.
“Most concerns about GM crops have nothing to do with the technology which is as safe as conventional breeding. They are more often related to the way that the technology is applied and whether it is beneficial for small-scale farmers of for the environment,” Sir David said.
“To address these concerns we need to have an evidence-based regulatory process that focuses on traits, independent of the technology that has been used to develop them,” he said.
The Council for Science and Technology’s report said that the current regulatory set-up, which is based on restricting GM technology as a process, should be scrapped in favour of regulations based on the safety of individual products. This could be done by setting up an expert body based in the UK, similar to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Evidence, which governs the use of new drugs within the NHS.
“As there is no evidence for intrinsic environmental or toxicity risks associated with GM crops, it is not appropriate to have a regulatory framework that is based on the premise that GM crops are more hazardous than crop varieties produced by conventional breeding,” the report says.
“We therefore endorse [the European science academies’] proposal that a future regulatory framework should be product- rather than process-based.
"We propose that approval for commercial cultivation of new GM crops is made at a national level, as happens at present with pharmaceuticals,” it says.
Professor Jim Dunwell of Reading University likened the current EU regulations governing GM crops to the red flags that had to be in front of cars a century ago when they were driven on public highways.
“The regulation of the technology is not proportionate. It’s time to remove the red flags. We’re not calling for no regulation at all… we know what the unknowns are, we know which ones to be concerned about and we know what to do to ensure that bad unknowns don’t end up in any varieties that farmers plant. There’s too much regulation,” Professor Dunwell said.