It is hard to imagine a more demanding policy agenda than the one set off by the deceptively simple ability to alter a few plant genes. The first UK field trials of GM were in 1987, and the first commercial plantings of GM crops could have begun as early as 1996 if everything had gone as expected. Instead, questions were raised about the environmental, health and consumer choice implications of a technology that was widely perceived as being pushed by commercial interests from outside our shores. They were questions that justified a pause.
Whether the questions are considered answered or not, however, we have reached a point where pressure from both Europe and the US can be resisted no longer, and today the first crops are expected to get the go-ahead.
As someone involved in the debate since 1987, as an NGO representative, a member of a regulatory committee, and recently as a member of both the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) and the GM science review panel, I can confidently say I would not like to be in our leaders' shoes. The issues are not simple and passions run high. However, if I were, here are some things I would be bearing firmly in mind:
GM Nation?, the public debate commissioned by the Government, was an unprecedented exercise, an experiment. But it would be extremely unwise for the Government to even hint at not accepting the outcomes at face value - wait for the hoots of derision from those who thought the whole thing was just an elaborate stalling exercise from the start. The real test is whether the Government can take the messages reported and deal with them honestly and transparently.
It is clear from the public debate that most people don't see the point of GM, even if they're not actually hostile to the idea. Neither indifference nor hostility will be converted to acceptance by more science - the reactions are about intent and direction, not about data. Returning ad nauseam to the mantra of "sound science" is going to be seen as missing the point.
As the strategy unit's scenarios acknowledge, acceptance might come with clearly worthwhile products, but this is not how the current generation of GM crops are perceived - the risks figure more prominently than the benefits. Thus to give the go-ahead to any of them will seen as going against the grain of public opinion, unless accompanied by strict conditions and assurances that we can stop proceeding down this road if we choose.
The more science is thrown at the issue, the more the questions. That's what happened in the GM science review. However, very soon people will be asking what it was all about if the scientific uncertainties highlighted in the review are not picked up and addressed. The Government needs to make clear whose job that is.
The existence of GM with other forms of agriculture, including organic, is a particularly thorny issue, as the AEBC discovered when trying to formulate advice. In some circumstances, contamination from GM crops has the potential to cut seriously across the Government's objectives for the expansion of organic agriculture, which is embarrassing for a government that hopes to cope with removal of agricultural subsidies by encouraging high-value niche markets. The Government has no credibility in proceeding with commercial planting of GM until this is sorted out.
Those are the main bits of a tricky jigsaw, but by no means all. There are global issues, such as whether Brazil will go GM along with most of the rest of South America, leading to an inability to source non-GM protein, and compromising UK livestock production if the supermarkets continue to demand GM-free animal feed.
Over-arching all is a sense that the research, both scientific and social, being undertaken to promote sustainable agriculture, may not be covering all the bases because it requires the kind of inter-disciplinary thinking that the academic community has traditionally shunned.
Personally, although I remain sceptical and concerned about many aspects of GM, there is a part of me that will be relieved if a GM crop is approved today. Not because it represents a satisfactory resolution of all the issues - it won't - but because it might mean that we can move on from a focus on individual crops and genes to agreement about how to condition the farmed environment as a whole.
The stringent conditions that will need to be placed around a GM crop if it is to find any measure of public acceptance could provide a model for achieving a range of environmental and consumer goals that we aspire to in today's farming, especially in a post-subsidy world, but have so far lacked the means to achieve. Ironically, it is the free-marketeers who are prominent among those pushing GM, but its many ramifications might just provide the rationale for fettering the market more than ever before.
The author is Programmes Adviser to Green Alliance and Deputy Chair of the AEBCReuse content