Why we need to talk about GM again
Between 1990 and 2005 I was heavily embedded in the genetic modification (GM) debate, as a member of one of the key regulatory committees for ten years, and then as deputy chair of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC). AEBC recommended a public debate on GM crops, which reached 37,000 people through a variety of routes and excited a good deal of press attention. The result? Most people are uneasy, most scientists are not, and the economists thought there was little of consequence either way for the UK at that time. The effect on policy? Almost none.
The reason for that had less to do with the government’s political stance on the issue than with the European context. UK politicians were absolved from difficult decisions about commercial consent for GM crops and food because the prior approval system, established at European level, was in stalemate for many years. A set of anti-GM countries blocked approvals for all but a handful of crops.
This may be about to change. We are leaving Europe, and the extent to which we continue to operate by EU rules is likely to depend largely on the trading relationships we want to establish. The US is a key trading partner, US companies are among the large interests developing and promoting GM crops, and US administrations past and present have been irritated by the EU’s GM rules. There could be change to GM scrutiny procedures in response to these pressures.
Two lessons from the last debate
So we need to talk about GM again, but what did we learn last time round?
First and foremost, there is no point in engaging people in a public debate unless there is a credible account of what will be done with their views. The objective of the 2003 debate was never entirely clear. Who was it for? Was it to help an agnostic government come to a view one way or other, or to persuade people to come round to the idea of GM? Was it to help put conditions on the technology, or just to opine on the benefits? Without a clear purpose, why should anyone waste their time participating?
Second, people are concerned about the risks, but they are equally interested in the benefits. They quickly zero in on where the benefits will accrue. Are they for corporate interests or a wider social purpose? How will any trade-offs between risk and benefit be made, and by whom? And how does this one, highly specialised technology fit into the bigger picture of ensuring global food supply?
Where does GM fit into the bigger picture?
On that last point, we have much more information about the bigger picture than we did fifteen years ago. Thanks to the work of WRAP and others, we know that around a third of the global food supply is wasted at some point in the chain. In the UK, that means six million tonnes of edible food a year, more than four million tonnes of it from consumers. We are all responsible for that, there is no lack of agency if we only cared enough, and stopping the waste worldwide would reduce considerable pressure on future food supplies.
We also know that meat consumption is set to grow (on some estimates by three quarters in the next three decades), but that it is hugely resource intensive, taking 10 kg of feed for every kg of beef, for instance, and half that for pork. If we all ate less meat (not necessarily none, but less) the resource required to produce each unit of protein would be greatly reduced. And, if we can find an acceptable way to utilise insect or algae-derived proteins, the resources needed could be a tenth of that of beef.
Inequalities in food consumption must also be considered. In the UK we have more than 50 per cent more calories available to us than we need, with the excess translating into increased waistlines or waste. Some countries, despite huge advances in food production, have less than they need, thanks to unequal access not deficiencies in technology. It is unclear where GM might contribute to a more equitable distribution.
How to have a good debate
Set against that bigger picture, what is the role for GM now? My answer would be “limited”, although I’m always open to new evidence. And, if it is to have a role, how should we talk to a sceptical public about it?
My tips are to be clear why the question is being asked. And what will change according the answer. Start with the bigger picture, and don’t oversell, be honest about both the potential but also the limitations. In the earlier debate, some companies used a “we’ll feed the world” narrative, when all they actually had on offer were tomatoes that stayed firm longer. And, finally, don’t take the view, like some scientists, that if people don’t like the idea it is because they don’t understand. In the previous GM debate attitudes often hardened with more knowledge. A frequent question was “who can we trust to be honest about scientific uncertainty?”
A well constructed debate is crucial because there are serious governance issues looming. If we have a Brexit-preoccupied administration minded to do trade deals at almost any cost, who can we trust to be unbiased and authoritative? We have lost the institutions who might have been seen as credible in this sphere: the AEBC, the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (which produced one of the most thorough and thoughtful reports on this topic back in 1989).
There is the added complication that the Scottish and Welsh governments are anti-GM, but it is unclear how much jurisdiction they would have in a UK-negotiated trade deal. Another point of conflict may be what support regime replaces the Common Agriculture Policy. Will it reward more or less intensive agriculture, and what place will GM have within that?
I took part in a Royal Society sponsored event at the Hay Festival in the summer. The Royal Society is a good institution to take this on, although it has previously taken its own stance. As a body representing scientists of all kinds, which includes geneticists, plant breeders and ecologists, it would not be surprising if there were internal tensions. But someone has to step into the vacuum in public discourse, before we are all swept along by the exigencies of trade. Let’s hope there is not a sense of déjà vu when we return to these difficult decisions.
[Image: The wife’s tomato plants by Bart Heird from Flickr Creative Commons]