GM is a problem for science, not politics

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.