Steve Connor at the Independent told us, three months ago, of advice to our UK Government about genetically modified (GM, genetically engineered) crops. Our Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Prof Sir Mark Walport, led a team advising that Britain, and the rest of Europe, should embrace GM.
According to Mr Connor, Prof Walport’s team believe that ‘The case to press ahead with introducing GM crops both here and overseas has become overwhelming… Britain should be allowed to decide for itself whether [GM] crops should be grown [here] given the many benefits that they could bring in terms of sustainable food production…
‘GM technology is one of the tools that could help farmers around the world produce food sustainably for a growing population, but in Europe the technology has been effectively blocked by the EU’s inappropriate regulatory process…
‘Britain and Europe are falling behind other parts of the world where GM crops have been embraced… research and development of GM crops [should] be stepped up so that they could be grown both in the UK and oversees, notably Africa where increased food production is needed most.’
Who are you to speak for Africans, Prof Walport? Why do you say that Europe is ‘falling behind’ countries where GM crops are widely grown? Why do you say that GM crops represent ‘sustainable’ food production? Not everybody agrees with you.
Mr Connor’s article then quotes another member of Prof Walport’s team, Prof Sir David Baulcombe, saying, ‘Most concerns about GM crops have nothing to do with the technology which is as safe as conventional breeding. They are more often related to the way that the technology is applied and whether it is beneficial for small-scale farmers of for the environment… To address these concerns we need to have an evidence-based regulatory process that focuses on traits, independent of the technology that has been used to develop them.’
The report calls for ‘regulations based on the safety of individual products.’ So regulation should focus only on particular crop traits, ignoring the smallholders who produce most of Africans’ food.
I’ll give the last word to another member of the team, Prof Jim Dunwell. ‘We know what the unknowns are, we know which ones to be concerned about and we know what to do to ensure that bad unknowns don’t end up in any varieties that farmers plant.’
Well maybe not quite the last word. You’re scientists, members of this team. You may be tempted to ignore smallholders’ opinions and anything that isn’t a trait, but reality isn’t so neat. Last time I looked, scientists didn’t claim to know the unknown.