THE Scottish Government’s former chief science adviser has warned that its decision to ban growing genetically modified crops could have “apocalyptic” consequences for Scotland and actually threaten the very assets it is supposedly aimed at protecting.
Professor Muffy Calder, who stepped down from the role in December and has yet to be replaced, said she is “disappointed and angry” at the decision by ministers to opt-out of European Union consents for some GM crops.
Announcing the ban earlier this week, rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said GM crops could “damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14 billion food and drink sector”, and may lead to a “consumer backlash”.
But Prof Calder has hit out at the move, which she says does not appear to be based on scientific evidence. She also claims the decision could be even more damaging by leaving key cash crops such as potatoes, soft fruits and barley vulnerable to disease.
Scottish crops could be exposed to diseases which “could come and wipe us out”, she said.
Prof Calder, who is vice principal of the School of Computing and head of the College of Science & Engineering at the University of Glasgow, said: “I meant it in an apocalyptic sense.
“I’m not expert in the area, but everyone knows that there are diseases, there are blights that can affect crops.
“One of the motivations for GM crops is to develop more disease-resistant crops, and another motivation is so that you have to use less pesticide.
“If we’re not looking for other ways to make our crops resistant, it does leave us open, and maybe someone else will be able to develop something that is resistant.”
She added: “The ban seemed to be based on a perception of demand and fear of consumer backlash, not on any scientific evidence about GM crops themselves.
“It’s fear of the unknown, based on some unscrupulous articles in the very early days about potential health risks which have really not been well founded and there has been no evidence ever since.”
Asked if the decision could threaten the whisky industry, Prof Calder said: “That is an implicit conclusion one could draw from it.
“I’m not saying that, but what I am saying is to have a blanket ruling saying we can never investigate these means we’re cutting off a whole lot of avenues that other countries will explore and it doesn’t seem to be for scientific reasons.”
She has urged Scottish ministers to heed the advice of Professor Nigel Brown, a former member of the Scottish Science Advisory Council and chairman of the Genome Analysis Centre, who said there are “no examples of adverse consequences so far”, and that GM crops are kinder to the environment as they require fewer pesticides.
Prof Calder has also called on the Scottish Government to publish the scientific basis for its decision as well as any studies it has done to substantiate fears of a public backlash.
“If this is based on a perception of consumer demand, where is the evidence for that? Where is the social science that has been done for that? I’m not aware of it.
“As a general point, if you’re making policy then you should indicate the basis upon which you made the policy.”
She said she is not aware of any research of this nature being done while she was chief scientific adviser between March 2012 and November 2014.
“I was not asked about this and the Scottish Science Advisory Committee was not asked either,” she said.
Prof Calder’s position echoes many others from the science and agriculture communities.
Prof Colin Campbell, director of science excellence at the James Hutton Institute for soil and crop research, insists GM crops that have been through proper testing and approval are safe and effective in doing what they are designed to do.
“They can potentially be a better, biological solution for example to pressing problems of how to get higher yields with less chemical inputs of biocides used to control pests and diseases.
“The number of crops approved is very small but there is potential to use the approach for many other positive benefits such as reducing fertiliser and biocide use and, even in time, reducing water use and reducing greenhouse gases.
“We need more consultation with everyone working in farming, the food and drinks industries and consumers to identify the benefits they want to see including public good benefits such as those above which will improve our environment and potentially reduce chemicals in the environment.
“Banning field cultivation now will mean we cannot test current or future varieties in a Scottish context and Scottish farmers cannot use existing GM crop varieties.
“It won’t stop us advancing the scientific research but it will mean we are behind other countries who do choose to take this road as they develop first-hand knowledge of how GM crops grow in their environment.”
But anti-GM campaigners have backed the ban and accused Prof Calder of a “lack of expertise”.
Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said: “Professor Calder says ‘I am not an expert in the area’ and she has certainly proved this to be the case in the extraordinarily inaccurate and unscientific comments that she has made.
“For example, she says that ‘everyone knows that there are diseases, there are blights that can affect crops’ but she does not acknowledge that after 30 years of developing GM crops, there is no disease-resistant crop commercially available. GM blight-resistant potatoes, presumably what Professor Calder had in mind, are being developed, but of course there are new non-GM varieties of potato which deliver significant blight resistance and which have been available for some years.
“Professor Calder also displays her lack of expertise by saying that for GM crops ‘you have to use less pesticide’. It is true that insecticide and herbicide use in the USA initially dropped when GM crops were introduced, but it is also the case, based on US government data, that the overall use of pesticides on GM crops is now higher than on non-GM crops.
“One thing that everyone who takes an interest in GM knows is that huge problems have arisen with weeds in GM fields which are resistant to multiple weed killers, leading to the need for heavier applications of multipole weed killers and even hand weeding to control them.
“Finally, professor Calder says there has been ‘no evidence’ about potential health risks, but as a non-expert she is presumably not familiar with the scientific literature on GM safety.
“Of the long-term animal trials that have been done, roughly half indicate significant grounds for concern about the health impacts of GM compared to non-GM diets.
“The only thing that could have the ‘apocalyptic’ consequence which Professor Calder fears is if Scotland’s image for high-quality agricultural exports is damaged by the introduction of GM crops in Scotland – that could threaten all Scottish food and drink exports, and would have a serious impact on the Scottish economy.”
The Scottish Government did not respond to Prof Calder’s claims but continued to insist that prohibiting commercial cultivation of GM crops would not affect research in Scotland, where contained use of genetically modified plants is permitted in labs or sealed glasshouses.
“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,” a spokeswoman said.
The government has also come under fire for making the decision while the position of chief scientific officer remains vacant.
Prof Calder relinquished the role nine months ago, but the post has yet to be filled despite being advertised in spring.
“Following a full recruitment process, we are disappointed we were not able to appoint anyone to the role,” a Scottish Government spokesman said.
“Consideration is being given to the next steps in the recruitment process and interim arrangements that will ensure that science continues to play its full part in the work of the Scottish Government.”
He said ministers remain “committed to drawing on the very best science advice and expertise”.