GM crops are in the news again. Mike Abram asked the DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Bob Watson (pictured), for his views
Do you think GM crops will be grown in the UK?
It is difficult to predict how things might develop. If the EU approves new types of GM seed and they are marketed in the UK, you would expect that some farmers will want to try them out. The key issue will be what benefit the seed provides, and whether this leads to market acceptance of the end-product.
DEFRA’s key role is to ensure that any proposed GM crops are safe for human health and the environment. Beyond that, people will decide whether to buy any approved GM products.
What is the UK government doing to move the GM debate forward?
The GM issue should not be considered in isolation. To meet future challenges we need to look at all the different ways that agricultural output might be improved. The Foresight Study was launched this week by the UK government to look at food and farming nationally and globally, and The Royal Society is producing a study on the use of science and technology to enhance food crop production. Both these will be a useful contribution to any further debate on the future role of GM technology.
Is European, and UK agriculture in particular, being held back by the lack of approvals for cultivating GM crops within the EU?
There is no simple answer to this. While certain GM crops are being widely grown in some non-EU countries, it does not mean we are necessarily losing out in comparison. For example, the existing GM soya and cotton crops don’t have any relevance for the UK. Nor do we have any interest in the current GM insect-resistant traits, because we don’t usually have a problem with the insect pests they deal with.
Does the time taken to approve a GM trait for import and use in feed or food hinder UK/EU agriculture?
We have a specific concern at present that because the EU approval process for GM products is relatively slow, it could lead to problems with the supply of imported animal feed, on which UK farmers depend.
What steps are being taken to improve the approval process in Europe?
DEFRA is arguing for the EU regime’s operation to be streamlined as far as possible. There are delays in the process that could be avoided without compromising on safety and, therefore, it should be possible to reach quicker decisions on GM applications. EU discussions are continuing on this.
Why is EFSA‘s opinion on the safety of GM crops not believed by European governments (as shown by its continual inability to come to a qualified majority decision on GM traits deemed safe by EFSA)?
We believe that EFSA is doing a good job, and that its judgements are reliable. If EU Member States are concerned about a proposed GM crop or food they should provide relevant evidence for EFSA to take into account. Ultimately, the only way the EU will be able to deal with this issue is by following the evidence as objectively as possible.
Are GM crops part of the answer to the challenge of feeding the world?
They could be, and this needs to be recognised. However, we have many current technologies such as seed variants and the appropriate use of fertilisers which could increase food production and reduce post-harvest lost in developing countries. New types of GM crop are being developed with traits such as drought tolerance and disease resistance. If these work and are safe, their responsible use could help alongside other improvements to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable.
Are genetic traits that produce tangible benefits for consumers (as in the omega oil-producing soya bean trait) more likely to be accepted by consumers than GM traits that produce benefits for farmers (like herbicide tolerance)?
All other things being equal, you would certainly expect consumers to be more responsive and accepting of products that offer them a direct benefit.
Are these traits more inherently dangerous to consumers because they modify the end product, unlike crops that are modified to allow use of herbicides or insecticides, but have the same final end product?
GM crops and foods are not inherently dangerous. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis, which is how the EU safety controls operate.
Clearly, if the trait in question produces a food with novel characteristics, then this needs to be properly evaluated for consumer safety. The Food Standards Agency leads on food safety issues, and it is confident that the existing assessment procedures are robust enough to ensure that any approved GM foods will be as safe as their conventional counterparts.