Scientists fear GM crops ban may harm Scotland

The oilseed plant Camelina is being engineered to increase Omega 3 in feed helping improve benefits of eating farmed fish. Picture: Getty
The oilseed plant Camelina is being engineered to increase Omega 3 in feed helping improve benefits of eating farmed fish. Picture: Getty
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THE recent decision to ban growing genetically modified crops in Scotland could have major consequences for the health of Scots and the economy, according to scientists.

They hit out after the Scottish Government announced it will exploit new European Union rules that allow countries to opt out of growing authorised GM crops in order to protect Scotland’s “clean, green status”.

Rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said the decision was taken because allowing the crops to be grown north of the Border could damage Scotland’s reputation for high-quality produce and its £14 billion a year food and drink industry.

But experts insist the ban flies in the face of everything Scotland stands for and could have far-reaching consequences.

Professor Douglas Tocher, a molecular nutritionist at the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, said: “Scotland has a proud tradition of intellectual freedom and scientific leadership dating back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

“Central to this is the principle that it is not for politicians to dictate the boundaries of scientific research.

“If this principle is compromised by uninformed political populism in Holyrood, Scotland risks losing its science leadership position as researchers move to countries with a more supportive political environment. Let us hope this is not the direction we are now heading in.”

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Prof Tocher cited research he has been involved in that has potential to benefit Scotland’s growing fish farming sector while helping battle some of the leading causes of death in Scots.

He has been working with English researchers in developing oilseed plants that have been customised to produce omega-3 fatty acids, which help guard against cardiovascular disease.

Omega-3 occurs naturally in marine algae. It is added to feed to boost levels in farmed fish.

Prof Tocher accused Scottish ministers of making the decision “without offering any credible scientific evidence that GM crops would actually be harmful to Scotland”.

Dr Laura Bellingan, director of science policy at the Royal Society of Biology, said: “It would be a huge pity if Scotland did not remain open to embracing the kinds of technological advances that its excellent universities and others could contribute to productive farming.

“Genetic modification is not in principle at odds with farming practice and food production that provides environmental benefit. Being open to case by case decisions on the use of safety-tested crops could provide more opportunity to consider potential benefits and impacts on the public, producers and the environment.”

Announcing the ban, Mr Lochhead said the government had “long-standing concerns” about GM crops that are shared by many other countries.

“I firmly believe GM policy in Scotland should be guided by what’s best for our economy and our own agricultural sector rather than the priorities of others,” he said.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman insisted the ban would not affect scientific research north of the Border, where use of GM plants is permitted in contained labs or sealed glasshouse facilities.

She added: “The Scottish Government’s policy is not based solely on the precautionary principle.

“We must also take into account the wider context, including the reputation of our country – the preventative principle – and the will of our people – the democratic principle.”