GM is a problem for science, not politics

Related Topics
ENGLISH NATURE is not everyone's idea of a high profile, controversial organisation, whose name is known in multinational company boardrooms and the corridors of power in the US and Europe. But one of our jobs, as the agency for nature conservation, is to advise government and the public about the effects that genetically modified (GM) crops are having or could have on the web of natural life in the environment. We like to think of ourselves as a thoughtful, science-based commentator, with a firmly practical approach. It comes as a bit of a shock to find the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition arguing in the House of Commons about what English Nature's views are, and multinational agriculture companies beating a path to our door to try to change our minds!

Over the past few months, views about genetically modified crops and foods have polarised. Science is being hijacked in support of both sides of the argument. The result is that the public have an increasing sense of unease. Are GM foods safe? Are GM crops environmentally beneficial or environmentally damaging? Whom can the public trust to guide them through?

During the past two weeks, English Nature has been quoted in support of both sides of the argument of whether GM crops are environmentally safe or Frankenstein monsters. In particular, we have been quoted as calling for a moratorium on these crops and, conversely, as not calling for a moratorium. What are we saying?

First of all, our area of expertise is conservation and the environment, not food safety. We leave food safety to other more expert commentators. In terms of environmental impact, English Nature is not against genetic modification in principle. Contrary to what has been reported, we are not asking for a blanket moratorium on commercial release of ALL genetically modified crops. We are asking for proper time for research programmes to clarify the environmental impacts of these crops before commercial release. We consider there MAY be potential in some of this technology for producing more environment-friendly crops in the future, but that this needs further research, tighter regulation and enforceable safeguards once the crops are in use.

No research has yet demonstrated that the potential environmental benefits can be delivered in practice. At the moment, no one knows enough to judge whether this technology is environmentally beneficial or harmful. But there is some worrying evidence. We are very concerned about the effects that introducing herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops would have on biodiversity. These new crop varieties would give farmers the ability, which they do not now have, to eliminate wildlife in crops. Intensive agriculture over the past 30 years has decimated our wildlife. This new technology has the capacity for even greater damage.

There is good evidence to show that declines in wild plants, insects and birds on agricultural land are due in large part to the use of the more efficient herbicides which are the kind that are used with herbicide- tolerant GM crops. Evidence is also beginning to appear of the potential for spread of genetically modified traits into other plants, giving them unknown or potentially damaging qualities such as herbicide-resistance. We are not saying that rampaging triffids will be created, but we need to know whether they might. More research on the impact of GM crops on wildlife has recently been commissioned by the Government's Environment and Agriculture Departments, but they will not report until 2003 at the earliest. Yet, in spite of these scientific concerns, we saw last week the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment recommend approval of the commercial release of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape.

Our advice to government has been that herbicide-tolerant crops and insect- resistant crops should not be released commercially until the agreed research programme to assess the impact of GM crops on wildlife has been completed and considered by the regulatory system. The 12-month voluntary moratorium announced by the GM industry does not give enough time for the research, which will take at least three to four years.

Let's abandon the term moratorium. Those against GMO development in principle use it to mean a total ban on development. The GM industry uses the term to imply that it is slowing the pace of development when, in fact, it is proceeding just as previously planned.

English Nature advocates that research and trials, some on a whole field scale, must continue (though under strictly controlled circumstances) if we are to find out whether this technology is useful and safe. This programme of research needs adequate time. Commercial-scale releases should not go ahead until these results are available. Political arguments about whether or not English Nature is calling for a moratorium must not confuse what we are calling for.

The pitfalls inherent in trying to convey complex arguments about the risks and benefits of GM food was well demonstrated two weeks ago with the publication of the Lords Agriculture Committee report on GM crops. Though more than half of its recommendations were about the need for adequate research before release, and the requirement to extend and toughen the risk-assessment and regulatory process, it managed to attract headlines such as "Lords give go-ahead to GMOs". Megaphone journalism and megaphone PR find it difficult to cope with the uncertainty of the risks.

Of course, food safety and human health are even higher in the public mind than potential environmental impact. Attempting to force the pace of introduction of this technology threatens to bring public concern to such a peak that the acceptability of any benefits will be compromised for ever in the public mind.

The GMO companies don't seem to understand that Europe's public will not supinely accept these crops and foodstuffs, as the US public have, without much more adequate evidence of its safety. They don't seem to understand that the risks to the environment are different in the UK countryside where farming and wildlife have to co-exist. It will be disastrous if GM issues become such a political football that decisions are driven not by sound science but on political considerations. English Nature wants fewer people waving our advice at each other to demonstrate a point, and more people reading it and acting on it.

Barbara Young (Baroness Young of Old Scone) is Chairman of English Nature.

React Now

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

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

Tutor required for Level 3 Workskills

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Eduction are...

Primary Supply Teacher - Loughborough

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Teacher looking fo...

Primary General Cover Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teacher lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
NO ballots are stacked on a table during the Scottish independence referendum count at the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh  

Scottish referendum: Some divorces are meant to happen – this one wasn’t

Dotti Irving

To see how the establishment operates, you really needed to be at this week’s launch party for Andrew Marr’s new book

John Walsh
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week