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Why can’t we make a decision about the genetic modification of foods and crops?

David Willetts, the University and Science Minister, said at the British Science Festival on 14 September: ‘I’m announcing today that the GM dialogue project will not continue in its current format. However, it's vital to engage people of all ages on scientific issues, so that they have a real say about developments which can affect all of us.’

This is the second public dialogue process on genetically modified food and crops to fail to produce an agreed outcome.  The first – the GMNation? Debate – was abandoned because of a lack of consensus, and the second seems to have run into a similar problem.  In both cases, people with very different views about genetically modified foods and crops have been unable to agree.  Why is this? 

Safe but not on sale

It’s now 16 years since the first two foods derived from genetically-modified plants were approved as safe to eat. The first was a puree from genetically-modified tomatoes, which went on sale in the UK, labelled and with choice. The second was the meal from genetically-modified soya beans. Both were recommended for approval in 1994, and the Minister agreed to both. 

The Zeneca tomato puree outsold the existing product, but was removed from sale, not for safety reasons, but because of activist and political pressure on the supermarkets. The GM soya never reached the shelves. A great deal of UK research and development on GM crops went to the US, and no product labelled GM is on sale in the UK today.

However, meat from cattle fed genetically-modified soya is widely sold, chickens are likely to follow suit, and we are told that it is impossible to exclude genetically-modified soya and corn from all other processed food products on sale because of its ubiquity. So it’s safe but not on sale, and it looks as if without a steer from government, retailers will never move.

So why was the launch of GM products such a fiasco?

Anti campaign 

Looking back, it seems pretty clear it was because of a campaign run by several non-governmental organisations and some newspapers. The first major public event, a television broadcast on August 11th, 1998, and then a press conference held in the House of Commons on February 12th, 1999, was the claim made by Arpad Pusztai and collaborators that transgenic potatoes had stunted growth and suppressed immunity in rats that had eaten transgenic potatoes for 110 days. 

His statements were generalised by the press, their writers asserting that all GM foods could be unsafe.  Despite the fact that there was no published data to support the claim, and despite an independent review which cleared the product (October 1998), and a robust response from the Prime Minister (20 February, 1999), we scientists were left challenging these claims in the media as best we could – the Science Media Centre was yet unborn.  We faced a professional public relations campaign with a new headline every two or three days; and we were soon on the defensive.  ‘So, Professor Burke, you can’t prove that GM soya is absolutely safe?’ I was asked live on TV.  ‘Well, no,’ was my slightly naïve response. ‘So the British public is being subjected to an untested new product made by genetic modification which is claimed to cause cancer?’  End of interview. 

Our mistake was not lack of effort but, rather coming fresh out of our laboratories, most of us were not sufficiently skilled and experienced to counter the onslaught mounted by the pressure groups and fanned by the media. The genie could not be put back into the bottle.

So what are the possibilities?

Do Nothing 

‘Minister,’ I can hear a senior civil servant saying, ‘the UK faces a very difficult financial future and we have to make many difficult decisions.  Why bother ourselves with an issue like this which is not of primary importance?’

Surely that is a policy of despair, not worthy of an administration which is determined to lead Britain in a new direction.  We used to think that we might be able to earn our living by what came out of the City, but no longer, and as a small island trading nation on the edge of a large land mass, we need to exploit and invest in our excellent science and technology if we are to continue to earn our living. 

Try Again

‘After all,’ Ministers must say to themselves ‘surely if we get fifteen sensible people in a room, talking to each other for long enough, a consensus will emerge’. 

That was not true of the GMNation?  Debate, in which I was peripherally involved. It wasn’t true of the EU:US Biotechnology Consultative Forum in 2000, of which I was a member, and I understand it’s the problem with the current process which has just been terminated.  The problem is that there are members of these committees with non-negotiable positions, and since a consensus is required, deadlock is inevitable.  

Mark Henderson, the science editor for the Times put it well recently thus: ‘When I took part in an online debate about GM food with Emma Hockridge of the Soil Association, I thought I'd explore a little farther.  What evidence, I asked, would be sufficient to convince this organic lobby group to accept that genetic engineering was neither unsafe nor environmentally damaging?  I asked again.  And again.  I never got an answer.’1

The EU option

Recently Commissioner Dalli has proposed to delegate decisions over GM down to individual countries – subsidiarity in practice. However this raises wide issues of principle in Brussels, and I think is unlikely to be adopted in the near term.

A way forward

So what’s left? The problem is not lack of evidence, or lack of informed reports; for example from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics2, 3, from the Royal Society4, from the UK Government GM Science Review5 or from proponents of both the pro- and the anti-position.  The problem is that they cannot agree, because at least some of them have non-negotiable positions.

I suggest we need an independent process which sifts the scientific evidence and makes a recommendation to the Minister.  This procedure has been used in the past to resolve similar apparently intractable problems such as the siting of a nuclear power station, the building of an airport runway or a new wind farm, but in this case it should be given a deadline. We have already spent enough time on this problem.

So I propose a type of judicial inquiry in which the evidence is reviewed, in public, with evidence in person or in writing, from proponents of the different positions.  The evidence should be weighed by people drawn from those professions trained to weigh evidence and I suggest a panel of assessors chaired by a judge.

But the difficulty, too complex to be resolved in this short article, is how wide ranging to make the review. Is it a debate only about issues of relevance to UK agriculture, a review of the scientific evidence in relation to human health and environmental issues, or a wider discussion about the whole agricultural enterprise? I favour the first. Recommendations should be made in public, and the Minister should respond in public.  Thus the Minister makes the decision on the basis of evidence sifted and weighed by a panel of relevant expert assessors, but who, crucially, do not have a position themselves.  The responsibility for the final decision must lie with the Minister.

1 Ideas not just for dummies. Eureka, The Times, September 2010, p 9.

2 Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues. Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999.

3 The use of genetically modified crops in developing counties. Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2004.

4 Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. The Royal Society, October 2009.

Professor Derek Burke
Professor Derek Burke is a former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (1989-1997), a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (1987-1995), and a former member of BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Panel (2007-2010)
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