GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report

By Grant Jacobs 22/06/2015

Below is a condensed version of a report, featuring the portions I feel may be useful to New Zealand, followed by a selection of expert statements about this report. The legislation and public engagement issues for GM in this report strongly overlap with those in New Zealand.

I offer this for those interested in the topic, but lack the time to read the full-length original. At some stage I hope to follow my condensed edition below with an informal piece that includes my own suggestions.

The report is from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee who earlier this year offered their recommendations to the British parliament on GMO legislation and public engagement.

Any text written in square brackets (‘[’, ‘]’) are my remarks, rather than the report. I have in a few places re-grouped content where I think it makes for clearer reading, and have removed footnote citations for easier reading. Some sections have been paraphrased. My apologies for not giving the page or section numbers the quoted passages are from, as in hindsight I might have. (You can find text easily by copy a few words and searching the PDF copy of their report.)

As this is intended for those more interested in the topic, I’ve assumed knowledge of basic terms. Feel free to ask in the comments below the article if you’d like an explanation of any of them.

From the Introduction

In 2013, 18 million farmers in 27 different countries grew genetically modified crops over a total of 175 million hectares—more than 12% of the world’s arable land.

Scientific evidence supporting the safety of genetically modified crops, in respect of both human and animal health and the environment, is very strong: in 2010, a report by the European Commission looking back on 130 EU-funded research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years and involving more than 500 independent research groups, concluded that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were “not, per se, more risky than […] conventional plant breeding technologies”. However, GMOs remain subject to stringent regulation under an EU legislative framework which has been influenced by the inappropriate application of the precautionary principle—an approach intended to guard the environment from irreparable harm in conditions of scientific uncertainty.10 Since a framework was first developed in 1990, only two genetically modified crops have achieved authorisation for cultivation, leading to what is effectively a moratorium on the technology across Europe.

hoped to elucidate, through a detailed examination of the case of genetic modification, lessons which could be applied to the future governance of other fields of emerging technology.

Chapter 2, Genetic crop improvement: approaches and applications, offers a brief summary of genetic modification for crops. This is worth reading for those new to the topic.

According to the so-called ‘Baulcombe report’, prepared in 2014 for the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, 81% of the global acreage of both soybean and cotton is currently sown to genetically modified varieties and the global acreage under all forms of GM is currently doubling every five years. This amounts to 175 million hectares in total,

They include a boxed list of examples of other applications of genetically modified organisms:

  • Research. In 2013, over 2 million genetically modified (GM) animals—largely mice, rats and fish—were bred for research purposes. These are used primarily in medical research, where they aid understanding of gene function and act as models for human disease. GM plants are also an important laboratory tool.
  • Medicine. In 1982, insulin derived from modified bacteria became the first genetically engineered product to obtain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. Other therapeutic proteins, such as human growth hormone, are also now produced using GM organisms and GM plants have recently emerged as a low-cost alternative to current techniques used to produce protein-based pharmaceuticals and vaccines (this practice is known as “pharming”).
  • Cheese production. Since the late 1980s, GM yeast has been used to produce an enzyme called chymosin. Traditionally sourced from calf stomach, chymosin, or ‘rennet’, is a key ingredient in the cheese-making process. Today, about 90% of the hard cheese in the UK is made using chymosin from modified microbes.
  • Environmental management. GM bacteria can be used for both the production of biodegradable plastics and for bioremediation—the use of microorganisms to remove or neutralize damaging pollutants. Several GM organisms, including plants, yeast and algae, have also been considered for use in biofuel production.

They present their take on the ‘first generation’ transgenic crops, targeted at herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

They note that there was dispute as to the extent things had moved on from those opposed to GMOs (in their case, Greenpeace UK and GM Freeze).

[One difference in science for these ‘first generation’ GM crops is that they were developed without knowing the plant genome sequences of the crop being modified. There is now also considerably more understanding of genetics. This knowledge is particularly useful to modifying existing genes, as opposed to introducing new genes as transgenic approaches do.]

Up-coming products, which might be thought to be a ‘second generation’ included

various forms of disease resistance (e.g. blight-resistant potatoes), various forms of abiotic-stress tolerance (e.g. drought-tolerance), nitrogen-use efficiency (i.e. enabling less use of artificial fertiliser), other forms of pest resistance (e.g. against nematodes and aphids), and crops with improved nutritional characteristics (e.g. ‘golden rice’, to combat vitamin A deficiency, plants that produce healthy omega-3 oils and purple tomatoes with beneficial antioxidants).

They note a shift from productivity gains in the ‘first generation’ products to “consumer and environmental benefits” gains in these up-coming products. They also note a shift from inserting new genes randomly within the genome to insertions targeted at particular locations and use of techniques that are not transgenic, e.g. cisgenic modification, genome editing and epigenetic modification.

Professor Rosemary Hails noted that these techniques sit “between conventional breeding and recombinant DNA technology”.

Chapter 3 covers The role of advanced genetic techniques in agricultural innovation. I’m not going to gloss this, aside from beings basic background a fair portion of their coverage is political rather than scientific. They emphasise an apparent disconnect between disallowing growth of GM crops, but having foodstuffs and animal feed that include GM crops, and recommend in policy that “allegations of scientific uncertainty should not be used as a pretence for value-based objections”.

It’s worth noting that modern genetic approaches can be used to assist some types of ‘conventional’ breeding, for example via marker assisted selection (box 3, page 25). [Some work of this type is undertaken in NZ.]

We received no evidence to suggest that genetic modification, or any other single technology, was widely viewed as a potential cure-all for global agricultural problems. It is clear that a diversity of approaches—technological, social, economic and political— will be required to meet the challenge of delivering sustainable and secure global food production. However, advanced genetic approaches do have a role to play. We are convinced by the evidence provided to us that this suite of technologies is a potentially important tool, particularly in the developing world, which should not be rejected unless there is solid scientific evidence those technologies may cause harm.

They explored ‘technological lock-in’ [their phrase], where “specific technological pathways, once embarked upon, become progressively difficult and costly to escape.” ‘Technological lock-in’ was deferred to further discussion, but they expressed a need to include the wider range of approaches in funding research and developments for agriculture.

They “reject the claim that preferential investment in this field has prevented research from progressing in other areas of agricultural research.” (paragraph 37) and called for better breakdown of funding to avoid misconceptions, –

We have not been convinced by the argument that the application of intellectual property rights to genetically advanced crops has hindered other innovation trajectories and we have seen little evidence to support claims that patents pose a significant barrier to independent research. However, it is clear that this subject raises strong emotions and we agree with the Royal Society that this is a complex matter that warrants further consideration.

We recognise that the debate about innovation in agriculture is often too narrowly framed around the single subject of ‘GM’ and we agree that this has likely led to an unnecessary polarisation of views. However, we see no compelling evidence that this has ‘locked out’ alternative innovation options: if anything, it may have had the effect of prejudicing the public against advanced genetic approaches.

It is clear from the evidence we have received that fears that the pursuit of advanced genetic approaches to crop improvement inevitably ‘locks out’ alternative technologies and solutions are ill-founded. Nevertheless, we recognise the need for society to remain open to a variety of innovation trajectories and for policy-makers to look beyond the single dimension of economic growth when considering the potential costs and benefits of any emerging technology.

Chapter 4 deals with the EU regulatory environment. It’s useful to compare different legislatures and the difficulties they might have, but with the time limits I have in writing this I will have to omit this.

[One point may bear noting. It is not true that the EU ‘bans’ GMOs as some of those opposing GMOs suggest. What is clear from the description is that some products are approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) but fail to move to legal acceptance to grow them in the EU primarily because different nations dispute the decision, holding it from those nations that might use them. Basically, political wrangling rules ‘downstream’ of the safety assessments.]

Professor Joe Perry, Chair of EFSA’s GMO panel, recognised that Member states tended to vote “on political grounds, in many cases ignoring the […] scientific evidence” provided by EFSA, despite this being against World Trade Organisation rules.” “He added that aspects of the system had been “abused by Member states for political reasons that have nothing to do with science”

[A recent ruling allowing individual nations to decide for themselves may free up growing of GE crops by those who wish to, although some have expressed doubts on this.] One GE crop approved is a variety of insect- resistant Bt maize that accounts for about 30% of Spain’s total maize production. They report there are over 40 GE food products approved, mainly for use in animal feed.

They note that “There is no single agreed definition of the precautionary principle and “considerable debate” as to what it means and how it can be implemented.” but “a useful definition was offered … by the UN’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, which described it as”

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

[A key phrase (for me) is ‘scientifically plausible’: most of the what I seen offered in support of ‘possible harm’ doesn’t meet this standard to my judgement.]

They note that a previous concern has been “avoid unwarranted recourse to the precautionary principle, as a disguised form of protectionism” (They quote here from EU documents; source in 37 of report.)

[The potential for misuse of the precautionary principle has relevance to last year’s court ruling on ZFN-1 mutagenesis technology in NZ.]

Eric Poudelet, Director of Safety of the Food Chain at the European Commission, told us repeatedly that the Commission had “never implemented the precautionary principle for the authorisation of GMOs”.

It is clear to us that an interpretation of the precautionary principle has significantly influenced the EU’s approach to GMO regulation and we consider the claim, made by a representative of the European Commission, that the principle has never been implemented for GMO authorisation to be, at best, disingenuous. If the precautionary principle is to avoid being used as a political tool, greater clarity is needed regarding when, and how, it has been used.

Only eight cultivation applications now remain in the EU regulatory system while, in contrast, nearly 100 genetically modified crops have been approved for use in the US.

A further “perverse political outcome” of the current system, according to Professor Joyce Tait, Innogen Institute, was that “the more onerous you make the regulatory system, the more difficult it is for small companies to get through that to the market”, reinforcing the oligopolistic tendency that underlies some people’s concerns about the genetic modification.

A regulatory system under which it takes many years—sometimes decades—to reach a decision cannot possibly be considered fit for purpose. Evidence clearly shows that the current EU regulatory regime for GMOs is not working, and has not worked for some time. We await signs of whether the recent changes will significantly change the outcome for companies seeking approval to grow GM crops in Europe.

They identify three problems that lead to “the current stalemate in the EU”: the ‘regulatory trigger’, ‘Consideration of risks and potential benefits’, and ‘National versus collective decision-making’. The latter is not relevant to the NZ situation. The first sections is long, and broken into subsections. There is particular emphasis on the issue of process-based v. product-based regulation, which is very relevant to NZ legislation.

The ‘regulatory trigger’ is described as “technology-specific; genetically modified crops are regulated because of the method by which they were created rather than because of the traits that they display”, noting that several advisory bodies have “have advocated a move to a trait-based regulatory system” based around two issues:

  • lack of evidence to support the underlying premise that genetically modified crops present higher risk than their conventionally bred counterparts
  • the failure of process-based regulation to cope with advances in technology

[We have these same issues in NZ, which to my mind are reflected in last year’s ruling on ZFN-1 technology.]

They note that Canada uses a trait-based system to regulate crop GMOs, being “subject to full risk assessment and regulation only if they are defined as being a ‘plant with a novel trait’ (a ‘PNT’)”, “produced by conventional breeding, mutagenesis, genetic modification or any other technique, and not all genetically modified plants will necessarily be defined as PNTs.”

According to the European Academies Science Advisory Council, “this approach acknowledges the fact that it is the product, and not the process, that warrants regulation because it is the presence of novel traits in a plant that potentially pose an environmental or health risk, and not how the traits were specifically introduced”. It added that “a key strength of the Canadian regulatory system is that while the techniques used by plant breeders continue to evolve, the regulatory trigger for PNTs will remain current and consistent”.

They note that the process-based system, like we still have in NZ, had it’s origins in the concerns of the 1990s and earlier. At the time much less was known of plant genetics, the genetics of GMOs and the first plant genome was long to come. [As a reference point, the human genome wasn’t substantially complete until 2000; the first plant genome was thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), largely complete in 2000 and the first major crop species genome published was rice (Oryza sativa) in 2002. A list of the first 50 plant genomes published can be found in Todd Michael and Scott Jackson’s article, The First 50 Plant Genomes. For a ‘lighter’ take on the text of that piece, try Madeline Fisher’s Exploring the first 50 sequenced plant genomes.]

The relative safety of genetically modified and conventionally bred crops

Several advisory bodies and individuals supported that “genetically modified crops pose no greater risk than their conventionally bred counterparts”.

A 2010 European Commission report, looking back on 130 EU-funded research projects, concluded that GMOs were not inherently any more risky than conventionally bred crops and EASAC, “the collective voice of European science”, stated in 2013 that “the scientific literature shows no compelling evidence” linking genetically modified crops “with risks to the environment or with safety hazards for food and animal feed greater than might be expected from conventionally bred varieties of the same crop”.

A small number differed in opinion (e.g. Doug Parr of Greenpeace UK). Both Greenpeace UK and GM Freeze expressed concern over ‘gene insertion’: this refers to only one of many possible ways modifying genomes, the recombinant DNA technology of the ‘first generation’ crop GMOs. [See Peter Dearden’s article, Defining Genetic Modification at sciblogs for more on this.]

These were considered past concerns by others, i.e. that the science has moved on.

The Royal Society explained that process-based regulation inevitably resulted in these types of “inconsistencies”, because the same phenotypic trait, for example herbicide resistance, “may fall in or out of the scope of the regulations […] simply because of the way it was introduced”. As a consequence, according to Professor Leyser, conventionally-bred herbicide-tolerant crops undergo “no scrutiny whatsoever before they are put in the field”, despite them producing the same type of potentially harmful effects as those listed by Ms O’Neill.

The current EU legislative framework for novel plants is founded on the premise that genetically modified plants pose inherently greater risk than their conventional counterparts. The weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, collected over many years, has shown this to be unjustified. Where genetically modified crops have been shown to pose a risk, this has invariably been a result of the trait displayed—for example, herbicide tolerance—rather than the technology itself. We are disappointed that the Government has not more publicly argued this fact. We recommend that the Government publicly acknowledge that genetically modified crops pose no greater inherent risk than their conventional counterparts. A statement recognising this fact should be included in the Government’s response to this report and relevant areas of GOV.UK should be updated to reflect this.

New techniques for genetic crop improvement

Current EU legislation defines a GMO as “an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. As a result of its focus on process rather than trait, a list of particular techniques considered to meet this definition are specifically included in the legislation (for example, the typical first generation process of transgenic insertion) while others are expressly excluded (for example, in vitro fertilisation and the induction of polyploidy, a technique commonly used in plant breeding).

We have the same approach in NZ.

Professor Rosemary Hails, Chair of ACRE, stated that this was leading to “a necessary but nonsensical debate” about whether particular new methods should be considered ‘GM’.

[Last year’s ZFN-1 ruling is an example of this in NZ.]

They conclude:

The EU’s process-based regulatory system for novel crops is increasingly proving itself to be incapable of dealing with advances in technology. This raises the prospect that potentially important agricultural innovations will be hindered, or even halted, by inappropriate regulation, while potentially harmful crops may escape appropriate control if they are produced using techniques not captured by GMO regulations.

We consider the current process-based EU legislative framework for GMOs to be fundamentally flawed and unfit for purpose.

[NZ GM legislation is also process-based; this conclusion should strongly be noted.]

Government policy on process- versus trait-based regulation

We acknowledge that there is a need to “tread carefully” with regard to trait-based regulation and recognise that a change in UK policy on this issue is unlikely to pay immediate dividends. However, we consider it likely that a move to trait-based regulation at EU-level will eventually be forced by technological progress and suggest that the Government would be wise to prepare for such a change. We recommend that the Government formally adopt a move to trait-based novel plant regulation as a long- term policy goal and begin to develop its preferred framework for such a system so that this can inform EU discussions.

[I have similarly suggested previously that a new legislation should be drafted, with an aim to bring it in to replace the existing one before the flaws in current legislations become to onerous.]

They also called for an evidence-based approach to the development of policy. [See also, Putting government policy on trial.]

Some object that the current regulation looks only at the risk side of risk/benefit analysis, concluding

Good risk management requires the potential benefits of an action to be thoroughly considered alongside the risks. It also requires a consideration of the risk of failing to act. Current GMO legislation fails to adequately recognise this point and the European Commission, as risk manager, has proved itself incapable of taking (or unwilling to take) these factors into account on a discretionary basis. This has led to a one-sided decision-making process and has sent a misleading message to the public about the potential value of these products, to the economy, society and the environment. We urge the Commission to give greater recognition to the full array of potential social, economic and environmental benefits offered by GMOs and the potential consequences of failing to adopt these products during EU risk assessment and risk management processes.

They examine decision making of each nation v the EU, an issue that has little relevance to NZ. They note in this context several decisions affecting testing running contrary to scientific advice, that political thinking was overruling where sense would dictate that the science should be the dominant input. That safety regulation, for example, still uses value-based judgements was noted, for example what ‘level’ is considered safe, concluding –

Science and politics each have a role to play in both risk assessment and risk management. However, while risk management is rightly a politically-led process, risk assessment must be led by science if it is to effectively contribute to evidence-based policy-making. This distinction has not been sufficiently observed in the EU’s regulation of GMOs.

They cover concern that recent legislation changes may not, in practice, allow countries wishing to move grow GMO crops to do so. This, too, is not of relevance to NZ, but it is worth understanding the underlying issue in decisions made in Europe if they are to influence thinking here. A key catch for the EU is that while member states can go their own way, the crops still have to be authorised before any member state can grow them. In principle if implemented poorly some countries opposed to crop GMOs might block other nations from growing them despite them wanting to. Consequently they stated,

We remind those in the EU who are opposed to GMO cultivation that the purpose of shared regulation should be to ensure mutual protection from unsafe products, not to unjustifiably restrict the choices available to other elected governments and the citizens whom they represent. We encourage all member states to vote in favour of authorising those products that have been deemed safe by the European Food Safety Authority so that national governments can make their own decisions about how best to act in their electorate’s interests.

Chapter 4 concludes with a need for regulatory reform,

We understand the challenge of securing major legislative change in the EU—particularly in relation to this subject—and therefore the Government’s inclination towards delivering small improvements to the current regime rather than attempting a more significant overhaul. However, fundamental flaws in the design of this legislative framework have created a regulatory process that is not fit for purpose, has driven research activity out of the EU and which is putting the UK’s agricultural future at risk. Substantial regulatory reform is no longer merely an option, it is a necessity. We recommend that the Government publicly state its long-term commitment to major reform of the EU legislative framework for genetically modified organisms and other novel crops.

Chapter 5 looks at precaution, risk and uncertainty, in particular if the ‘Precautionary Principle’ (PP) is an obstruction to innovation and/or might being applied too readily (Chapter title: EU GMO regulation: a misuse of the precautionary principle?)

[As noted earlier, last year’s ZFN-1 ruling was in part based on this principle.]

They open by noting that the PP framework was,

initially developed in the 1990s, at a time when, according to the Royal Society, there was “an absence of evidence of whether GMOs posed different or greater risks to human health and/or the environment than organisms developed using existing methods”.However, it stated that “our understanding of genomes and experience of using GM crops has expanded considerably” since then and added that, “where risks have been identified”, they have been shown to “relate to the trait that has been introduced rather than the method by which it was introduced”.  It added:

the consensus of scientific bodies is that the scientific evidence no longer justifies the precaution of controlling organisms specifically because they were generated using recombinant DNA technology.

These points relay that the status of GM crops has moved since the initial use of the PP was set. [The latter point is particular important: there is no longer a sound reason to block the use of GM crops as a class.]

When GM crops were first considered, the main technology was recombinant DNA to create transgenic products – products where a gene has been added.

There are now wider range of techniques.

The evidence that we have detailed elsewhere in this report enables us to demonstrate that not one of these requirements continues to be universally met for crops produced via genetic modification.

They concluded,

  • “the weight of scientific evidence collected over many years demonstrates that the premise that genetically modified crops pose greater risk than their conventional counterparts is unjustified”
  • “that any risk that genetically modified crops have been shown to pose derives from the trait displayed rather than any inherent risk posed by the technology itself”
  • “Society has indicated, through its use of other technologies posing comparable risk, (for example, non-GM herbicide tolerant crops), that it considers the level of risk posed by genetically modified organisms to be acceptable”

We agree with the European Commission that a precautionary approach is appropriate in circumstances where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and when there is reason to believe that potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health might result if precaution is not exercised. However, it is clear from the evidence that we have received that these conditions are not met simply because a crop has been produced via genetic modification. Continued recourse to the precautionary principle in relation to all genetically modified crops is therefore no longer appropriate. Indeed, it has acted as a barrier to progress in this field.

There are vast discrepancies between the European Commission’s stated approach to applying the precautionary principle and its adoption in practice. Uncertainty about how the principle is being used at EU level is not helped by the lack of a consistent definition. We recommend that the European Commission consult with stakeholders in order to update its 2000 ‘Communication’ on the precautionary principle. The updated document should include a clear definition of the principle and should stipulate the necessary conditions for it to be used as a basis for EU policy. In future, when the European Commission draws upon the precautionary principle in its policy making, it should publicly state: a) how the controlled activity meets its specified conditions for recourse to the precautionary principle; b) how measures adopted in response align with the general principles of risk management (described above), and c) what is being done to resolve uncertainties and render continued precautionary measures unnecessary.

We remind the Commission that any legislation guided by the precautionary principle must allow for an exit from precautionary measures once there is strong scientific consensus that any risks are low.

Responding to uncertainty

They discuss science-based use of the PP, and note other things that have been exercised with a PP-type approach.

[It seems to me some context is needed here. In the EU, there is scientific approval, then following that political approval for use. The safety aspects are scientific and can’t realistically cover non-science aspects; other aspects are covered later in political approval.]

Several participants argued public engagement is another approach to dealing with the (non-scientific) aspects of uncertainty.

We have already acknowledged the considerable relevance of societal concerns to decision-making about risk and reiterate the need for non-scientific factors to be considered alongside scientific risk assessment during the risk governance process. However, the precautionary principle was designed primarily as a response to scientific uncertainty, not value-based ambiguity. Such ambiguities are common in emerging areas of science and technology and are also often intractable; recourse to the precautionary principle in these scenarios would therefore potentially act as a permanent barrier to the use of safe innovations. Where value-based ambiguities exist, public discourse, not scientific risk assessment, should be pursued as a route to greater legitimacy.

We recommend that the Government give greater consideration to the value that participatory processes might contribute to its own treatment of risk and uncertainty in policy development.

They go on to examine Government use and interpretation of the precautionary principle. A key recurring theme is that there is not a universal definition of the PP, and that these conflict with one-another.

[My recollection is that in the ZFN-1 ruling in NZ, the lack of a universal definition was not made clear.]

They ask for clarity over this issue.

Chapter 6 covers Public information and discourse,

This chapter focuses on how the public debate about genetic modification has been framed, how it has evolved, and how a more productive conversation about science and technology in general, and food and farming in particular, might be initiated in the UK.

[I would like to defer a detailed covering this chapter, if ever, until a later article, partly as it is a long chapter and my time is pressing and partly as it is a topic I have previously addressed and is of interest to me as it relates to the science communication aspects of this issue.]

A key point they make is that a focus on ‘GM’ frames discussion in terms of the technology used to make the products, not the products, their properties, and their use. They argue this is a poor and inappropriate way of tackling this,

The term ‘GM’ has become a lightning rod for much broader public anxiety, in particular regarding our environmental future and the level of control wielded by large multinationals. These are legitimate concerns, but are currently centred on an inappropriate target. Whether a GM product is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, either for the environment or for society more broadly, should focus more clearly on how it is used than the technology utilised to produce it. This fact is lost in the continuing focus on ‘GM’. There is a need to reframe and widen the public debate to encourage a more productive conversation about what we, as a society, want from our food supply and what sort of agriculture we would like that supply to be based upon.

In this section they also “question the basis for Greenpeace’s opposition to golden rice”“We urge those organisations that actively campaign against the take-up of golden rice in other regions of the world to carefully consider how this position impacts on their professed humanitarian aims. We recommend that all such organisations—and specifically Greenpeace—review their public communication materials to ensure that they are evidence-based and honest in setting out the reasons for opposition to this technology.”

They recommend that the government should lead the change in discussion by example,

In order to shift both regulatory and public focus from process to trait, the Government must lead by example. It must also take steps to ensure that it is receiving appropriate scientific advice on the risks posed by cultivating conventionally-bred novel plants.

Expert reaction

The UK Science Media Centre covered expert reaction to the report summarised above. Below is a selection of their page, ‘Expert reaction to the Science and Technology Select Committee report on GM regulation’:

Prof. Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, said:

A recent study[1] estimated that the cost of the eco lobby’s opposition to Golden Rice has been about 1.4m life years lost last decade in India alone. The committee’s new report rightly urges Greenpeace and other eco-activist groups to cease their ideological-motivated opposition to this potentially life- and sight-saving crop.


Prof. Jonathan Jones, Plant Scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, said:

The committee has conducted a careful and thorough analysis of those crop improvement methods usually referred to as “GM”. Its main conclusions are indisputable. There is nothing intrinsically risky about the GM method, EU regulation of the method is not fit for purpose, we should regulate traits and not the method by which they are delivered, and do so at the EU nation state level.

Prof. Joe N. Perry, Chair of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) GMO Panel, who gave evidence to the committee, said:

I welcome this incisive and insightful report and agree with most of its findings. The Report makes it clear that the delays in GMO approvals occur largely at the risk management phase, after the GMO has been risk assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Approvals for GMOs are based on evidence and data and are written into scientific opinions published by EFSA. These opinions are written by a panel of 20 independent academic experts. As a result, half a billion European consumers can be assured that when an opinion declares food from a GM crop plant to be safe, it can be consumed with confidence. The Report makes clear that the current delay in approvals to import and cultivate GM crops within the EU is due to political disagreements, not due to disagreements over the quality of the risk assessments, for which there is a strong consensus amongst scientists across a range of disciplines including genetics, toxicology and ecology.

Prof. Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, said:

The debate on GM is too often hampered by myths and misinformation. That is as true of the debate among legislators as it is of public debate. To have a good discussion people need to be able to assess the actual evidence, free of the ideology. The Select Committee is right that it is time for that discussion to happen.

Other articles on Code for life and Southern Genes about GM:

Food and genetic modification: better informed policy and legislation wanted

Defining Genetic Modfication (Peter Deardon at Southern Genes)

How to avoid DNA (Peter Deardon at Southern Genes; read through to latter portion)

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part two – is the law out of date?

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part three

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

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