Government lays plans to reopen GM debate

7th Feb 2011

The government is gearing up to reveal its long-awaited policy on genetically modified foods, ministers have said. Speaking in the House of Commons last month, farming minister Jim Paice said the government was close to finalising its overall policy on GM crops and foods—a statement reiterated by environment secretary Caroline Spelman on 24 January.

According to Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat member of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, a statement on GM that focuses on public engagement is “pretty imminent”. “We’re hoping to get something out by mid-February,” he told Research Fortnight.

The move would be part of a “much more aggressive stance” towards GM, he added. “I think what the government is doing is trying to get greater awareness of what GM actually means, rather than what people think it means, after the Monsanto crisis,” added Willis.

However critics have already accused GM supporters and the government of exaggerating the technology’s benefits, and underestimating public opposition to it. “There are people in the GM world who have been frustrated by the apparent illiteracy [of the public]—they’re pouncing on the food crisis at the moment,” says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University and a member of the Sustainable Development Commission. “Cooler heads say GM is not going to resolve much.”

A Defra spokeswoman said the government remains in the process of determining the policy details.

Global Food and Farming Futures, a report published in Jan 2011 by the government’s future scenarios unit, Foresight, reignited debate when it suggested GM should be considered among the tools used to intensify food production—a focus many green groups say is unnecessary.

The report is one in a long line of documents, including the Royal Society’s Reaping the Benefits and the previous government’s Food 2030, to call for increased GM research alongside advances in soil science, agronomy and social science.

Conservative MP George Freeman called for a “rational debate” on GM at a Westminster Hall meeting last month and welcomes the government’s plans. According to Freeman, who is also chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, agricultural science and GM should sit at the heart of coalition policy.

Some scientists, and the biotechnology industry, are also keen to see the government clarify its policy says Maurice Moloney, head of one of the government’s largest crop science laboratories, Rothamsted Research. “I do believe in leadership and there is a point at which somebody in government or a department needs to step up and say, OK, we’re not advocating GM, but what we are going to do is deal with this rationally,” he says. Evidence accumulated in 15 years of GM use should allow for more nuanced debate, he adds.

According to Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, the government’s lack of policy is already causing problems. The previous government spoke cautiously about GM, but it voted in favour at EU level. The coalition’s lack of policy has led it to abstain, he says. “We’re in a situation where a lot of important decisions are being made and if the UK cannot vote that sends out a wrong message to other countries who’ve always looked to us to take a pragmatic approach,” he says.

In June 2010, the Food Standards Agency’s GM dialogue fell apart after two members of its committee resigned claiming a pro-GM bias. Lang says the success of any food dialogue will depend on its framing, choice of language and the range of options debated.

Kirtana Chandrasekaran, a food campaigner for Friends of the Earth, says that debate will be welcome only if it looks broadly at agriculture. “[The government] saying GM is ‘one tool in the box’ is all very well, but you have to ask, is that what’s happening? Will debate actually be non-partisan or is it about trying to convince the public?”

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