After something of a hiatus in the media, genetically modified (GM) crops are hitting the headlines once again. Earlier this summer a team of scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire began field trials on GM wheat plants developed to produce a natural pheromone that repels aphids. This led to the launch of an anti-GM campaign by the activist group Take the Flour Back, who threatened to ‘decontaminate’ the experiment if it was not stopped by the scientists.
In July it was announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were awarding $10m to scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich – one of the largest investments ever made to a UK GM research project. The group, led by Professor Giles Oldroyd, hopes to develop GM cereals that require little or no fertiliser, benefiting some of the world’s poorest farmers, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa.
The 1990s saw GM crops branded by the media as ‘Frankenstein foods’ alongside widespread public resistance to the technology. And with the huge amount of EU ‘red tape’ required to bring GM crops to market, biotech companies shifted their focus away from Europe. Today, over 160 million hectares of GM crops are grown globally but less than 0.1% of this is in Europe. In the UK, a small number of publically funded GM research trials have been granted, such as the one at Rothamsted. However, no GM crops are grown commercially in the UK.
So after 13 years of very little attention from the British media and public, have our opinions on GM crops changed? According to a recent survey published by The Independent, nearly two thirds of the UK public now believe that the Government should support research on GM crops that have the potential to lower chemical pesticide use. However, a more reserved poll carried out by Countryfile this week indicates that only one in three people approve of GM crop trials going ahead.
It does seem that the mood inside Westminster appears to have shifted over the past decade. The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir John Beddington, recently warned: “The fact is that we’re not making any more land. If we’re going to feed a growing population, raise the poorest out of poverty and address these problems of food security, then in some cases GM may actually be the answer. We’ve got to look for a significant and sustainable intensification of agriculture”.
Regardless of one’s views on the relative risks and benefits of GM, nobody can deny that bringing the subject back into public discussion is a positive thing. The media storm surrounding the protests at Rothamsted this year allowed both the scientists and sceptics to engage in public debate, and for each to have their views heard. It is clear that the public still have many questions about GM crops that they want answering and it is up to experts from the scientific community to address them.
In response to enormous public interest the charitable trust Sense About Science has set up a platform to offer the public better access to accurate, up to date information on GM plants. A panel of scientists is responding to queries, including those on GM foods and GMO safety, the effects of GM crops on ecology and the environment, and the regulation of GMO testing and commercialisation.
Questions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeted to @senseaboutsci . Responses will be posted online at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/plant-science-qa.html.
As a proponent of free speech and a good, hearty debate, I welcome your comments and opinions here.