I fear there is a little bit of rewriting of history going on as regards the story of GM crops in the UK. And there might be some rewriting of the present and misrepresentation of the future too! I keep hearing that GM crops were not given commercial approval in the UK because of anti-scientific hysteria - there certainly was some hysteria but from both sides of the argument!
The RSPB's position on GM crops is neutral on the technology - we will treat each potential GM crop on its merits - some may be good and some may be bad. In the past we certainly were very concerned about plans to release GM crops in the UK - because we feared that the management regime that would be possible with a particular type of GM crop (modified to be resistant to broad-spectrum herbicides) would damage wildlife. The government-funded farm-scale evaluations of these GM crops endorsed our concerns. Our ecological intuition and experience were proved to be correct by an impressive scientific study.
So science played a large part in banning these particular GM crops.
GM crops loomed large in our thoughts at those times - and my recollection was that there was a lot of rubbish talked by some in the biotechnology industry and by some in the environment movement too. The industry overclaimed the agronomic benefits and wrongly dismissed (and maybe even distorted) the ecological damage that could result. Some in the industry went up in my estimation - many went down. And environmentalists got too het up about triffid-like GM crops rampaging over the countryside and over-estimated (perhaps sometimes deliberately?) the food safety concerns. Some fellow environmentalists went up in my estimation - many went down.
Whenever I am with the biotechnology industry I ask them whether they have a GM crop, close to commercial release, that is demonstrably environmentally positive - they haven't come up with one yet.
GM technology usually comes up in the context of feeding the world and increasing food production - it's often proposed as 'the answer'. My experience of the biotech industry makes me want to see some proof that GM crops would, in the long term, raise yields. I can imagine traits which would be great to have: greater disease resistance, nitrogen-fixing and drought resistance. But just as I'd love to have a car that uses a quarter the amount of diesel that mine does at the moment, it's one thing to be attracted by an idea and another for it to be a realistic prospect worth investing in or banking on. Whenever I hear someone extolling GM they are usually talking in the abstract about what it might produce - rather than what it is producing.
Let's imagine that GM crops might be some part of the future of agriculture - actually they are part of the present in many parts of the world. There is still a question in my mind about how likely we are to get useful, sustainable, beneficial GM crops if the development of them is left to multinational companies. Is Monsanto's aim to feed the world as efficiently as possible? I think not. There may be a role for governments to finance the research that will be necessary to boost production through sustainable technology but that technology ought, probably, to include better organic crops, more efficient farming techniques, resource protection measures etc etc
I think it's right for the RSPB to remain open to the idea of GM crops - but healthily sceptical about claims about how great they might be until this greatness is proven.
Here are some links to the past so that history is not rewritten:
GM Science Review Panel's reports - this panel of experts (and me!), chaired by the then UK Government Chief Scientist Prof Sir David King, endorsed the case-by-case approach and noted that impacts of herbicide-tolerant GM crops were probably the largest worry.
Farm-scale evaluation results - it's worth looking at the non-technical summary which points out that the results of the largest ever investigation of farmland ecology suggested that commercial use of GM herbicide-tolerant sugar beet and oil seed rape crops would harm farmland wildlife.
Sooty - thanks. We agree!
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