Soil Association accused of overstating GM risk

The Soil Association has been accused of unnecessarily scaring the public by vastly exaggerating the potential risks of genetically-modified crops.

A leading scientist said the association was trying to “distort the picture” around GMs and said the organisation’s motives should be called into question.

His comments came as the Soil Association submitted its objections to a public consultation on whether a GM wheat trial should be given the go-ahead in England.

DEFRA had held the consultation after Rothamsted research submitted an application to trial a GM wheat variety that it said was resistant to aphids and would reduce the need for pesticides.

But the Soil Association said it was concerned about the potential impact of GM crops and said money spent on researching them could be put to better use.

It said the aphid-resistant wheat variety could impact upon the pests’ natural predators, while non-GM farms could be affected by displaced aphids.

As part of its Not in my loaf campaign, the organisation had also called on the public to write to DEFRA expressing their concerns over potential health risks of GMs and the fact there was no market for GM wheat.

But the association has been accused of making claims about the technology that were “vast exaggerations”.

“At some point, the Soil Association has decided that GM cannot be organic and that decision should be questioned,” said a leading researcher, who asked not to be named.

“It is trying to distort the picture saying there’s not much call for GM, but rising food prices and food security concerns mean people are recognising it’s important to keep an open mind about these issues.

“The Soil Association is being negative about everything and that’s an unrealistic approach. It is a campaigning organisation and this is something they can stir up controversy about.”

Toby Bruce, senior research scientist at Rothamsted, said the trial was looking at finding ways to find planet-friendly food and farming – objectives it shared with the Soil Association.

“This will be a non-toxic approach to dealing with pests, which is something the Soil Association is also campaigning for.

“All of the points the association makes we have answers to. It’s quite disappointing it has taken this hard line because potentially we can find some middle ground.

“We see this as contributing to more environmentally-friendly farming, but the whole point of the trial would be to get more of an idea about its potential impact.”

In an update to producer members this week, the association said it would be publishing a strategy next month that would prove it welcomed emerging technology.

“While we highly value traditional knowledge, [we want to show] we embrace appropriate new science,” said Helen Browning, Soil Association chief executive.