New visions for GM crops – but are old views deep-rooted?

By Mimi Tanimoto

GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Research, Hertfordshire

GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Research, Hertfordshire

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 enquiries@senseaboutscience.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.

About Mimi Tanimoto

Mimi Tanimoto received her PhD in plant genetics from the University of York, where she studied the mechanisms by which plant hormones control growth and development. She continued to pursue her interest in plant developmental genetics, carrying out postdoctoral research at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Guelph, Canada. Currently Mimi is employed as the Executive Officer of the UK Plant Sciences Federation, based at the Royal Society of Biology in London. Any views expressed in Mimi's articles are her own.
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3 Responses to New visions for GM crops – but are old views deep-rooted?

  1. Thanks for the post Mimi. These polls highlight the bias which is intrinsic to most online surveys, and I would be very interested to hear plans to make a better one. This does, however, raise an interesting question – if science shows GM crops to be safe, but the public mistrusts this, how should we proceed?

    In the 1990s many scientists failed in their responsibility to let the world know exactly what they were doing and what this meant. It is good to see they seem unlikely to do this again.

    I’ve been blogging about the issues here http://societyofbiologyblog.org/rothamsted-gm-crops/ and http://thesciencesays.southernfriedscience.com/category/gm-crops

  2. V. Moses says:

    Three points in response, two for you and one for Rebecca:

    1. “New visions for GM crops – but are old views deep-rooted?” was your headline although you may not have written it. My take on the answers is “maybe” (it depends on what you mean by “new visions”) and “yes”. Many of the visions were conceived a long time ago but, because of the endless hurdles against putting them into effect, they still have not seen commercial or pro bono reality: Golden Rice is a clear case of that and there are many others. But slowly, more so in some countries than others, those visions are taking on reality. Deep-rooted? Certainly for some people whose profession appears to be to denigrate GM crops no matter what the evidence. But the general public (at least in the UK, the only one with which I am really familiar)? I suspect they were as a whole never that antipathetic; as time passes and nothing terrible has happened anywhere, the epithet “Frankenstein food”, coined by people minded to do so deliberately to frighten the population at large, has lost much of its sting and the public has become more, perhaps much more, relaxed. Whenever a supermarket chain moves a bit towards a pro-GM position, there is no effect of sales even though the newspaper report the move. Professional anti-GM groups will nevertheless continue their antagonism until something better turns up about which to protest and gather support – and funds.

    2. “So after 13 years of very little attention from the British media and public, have our opinions on GM crops changed?” Not so. For the past six years, I have been collecting such information for the UK media as a whole (all the news items, comments and letters in national, regional and local newspapers and magazines, as well as on TV and radio, that I could get find – but I have not looked at social media). To the extent I have been able to monitor all those sources, I find that they have collectively run an average of 36 items a month, with a low of 10 in August 2007 and a high of 167 in May of this year (the time of the events at Rothamsted). Interestingly, in the spring of 2006, items generally unfavourable to GM were running about 2:1 ahead of the favourable ones. Early in 2007, the mood changed completely and since then, almost without exception, favourable items are about three times more common than unfavourable ones. Neutral or balanced items are comprise around 30% of the total.

    3. Rebecca wrote: “In the 1990s many scientists failed in their responsibility to let the world know exactly what they were doing and what this meant.” I do not regard that as fair or reasonable; it is very much a matter of opinion as to how obligated scientists themselves ought to be to promulgate their work to the general public. There are plenty of journalists to do that. Not that either the scientists or the journalists necessarily have much effect: for more than ten years people have been complaining about GM that “they don’t tell us” and “we don’t know”, while all around we are drowning in information. Many people just cannot be bothered to do their homework: they want somebody else to tell them and then cannot decide between the opposing views of those who do that because their own basis for understanding is so poor.

    Got that off my chest, then.

  3. William Petersen says:

    I hope that public opinion is starting to shift, but I fear in the U. S., there is still a very vocal minority that has bought into the propaganda of the organic food industry. One way to justify the high prices of organic food is to spread fear about non-organic food, especially GMO’s. I was reading comments on Facebook about an anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO post and was amazed at the number of people that agreed with the post and believe that organic produce is somehow healthier. Of course no one mentioned any science that supported that claim.
    Monsanto certainly deserves some of the blame for the backlash against GMO products. I think people can relate to the terms “farmer” and “organic gardener” and have a sentimental, personalized view of people that fit that label. When people get the impression that a food item is developed by “scientists” or “corporations”, they cannot relate to them, they seem foreign and perhaps a little scary. Monsanto should have talked about the people that worked on creating GM crops. That there are real people in the lab coats (Another myth, scientists mostly wear lab coats for pictures or if safety or biosafety demands it). The people working on GMO crops have kids, spouses, parents. They know the same joys and sorrows of life. They believe they are working on crops that will benefit mankind. They are not robots, blindly carrying out the orders of an evil corporation.
    I think Monsanto and the other corporations are missing a gold mine of a public relations opportunity by not involving their farmer customers in the conversation. I talked to a local farmer that raises corn and soybeans on 3000 acres in Wisconsin, (USA). The impact of insect and Roundup resistant crops have had on his farming operation is huge. Less tillage and smaller, more fuel efficient tractors has saved him thousands of dollars in fuel costs each year while reducing erosion and soil compaction. His wife kept a separate washing machine for washing his insecticide application clothes and hated handling them. With GMO crops, the amount of insecticide being applied is minimal to none. He has more free time to spend with his kids. He told me he does not necessarily like how Monsanto does business, but he loves what their products do on his farm.

    I agree with V. Moses view that while we are drowning in information, both scientific literature and popular press news items, it seems like very few people are investing the time to read them. People react to messages at a very emotional level without clearly understanding the issues.

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