Green light for GM? First official report into genetically modified crops in five years recommends 'safe and sustainable' roll-out in Britain

 

Science Editor

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower