Julie Hill: I'm a Green, but I still want GM crops to be approved

It is clear that most people don't see the point of GM, even if they're not actually hostile

Share
Related Topics

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 AEBC

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat