Perhaps I was influenced by a government scientist I met in a developing country who shrugged and said: “If I can grow 50 pineapples from one seed instead of one, why would I not do it?”. I felt sure there must be an answer but I certainly didn’t know it.
Due to legislation at Westminister, the issue is back on the agenda and the case for reconsidering blanket bans is certainly not without merit. Science moves on and regulations put in place 30 years ago may now constitute self-defeating barriers to beneficial advances and further research, not least in Scottish institutes.
On the other hand, there are inevitable suspicions that the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is being driven as much by ideology as by science. The current position derives from the EU and its hitherto hard-line anti-GM policy, making it an obvious target for those in search of “Brexit dividends”.
The Bill applies only to England but is a classic example of why it doesn’t make a lot of sense to pretend what happens in one part of our small island does not affect the rest of it, a reality that formal borders would not change unless they were very hard indeed.
The more practical approach is that differences of policy should be mutually respected – and it is the duty of both UK and devolved governments to seek safeguards and accommodations rather than stand-offs on this kind of issue. There has not been much sign of that so far.
The campaign which is opposing the Bill in England has not asked for it to be dropped but for amendments which are consistent with a “safety first” approach. The Scottish Government should join that debate, not least in the knowledge that the EU is also reviewing its policy with particular pressure from France.
For that reason, it is not expected there will be any ban on UK products from the EU in the light of this legislation. A business case review by the Regulatory Policy Committee, which is in other respects critical of the Bill, states: “The risk of new trade frictions is low” because there is likely to be “a future move to regulatory reconvergence”.
In the view of the UK Government: “Historically, ethical concerns have dominated the GM space, preventing proper consideration of
scientific evidence. The government needs to signal support for the scientific case in favour of genome editing; and ensure science is being considered alongside the ethical debates”.
From that perspective, the timing may be propitious. Rising food costs and scarcities cannot be dismissed either at home or in the wider world. The argument against producing more food, more cheaply needs to be pretty strong to carry public support in the current climate, if it can be done without demonstrable risk.
Concessions which the “Beyond GM” campaign is seeking include removal of the term “precision breeding” which they believe to be
misleading; safeguards relating to labelling and traceability; extension of risk assessment beyond a narrow scientific definition and “further consultation regarding aspects of concern highlighted by devolved government across the UK”.
Meanwhile, Beyond GM say: “We are concerned that too few MPs have grasped the full implications of the Bill and that, as a result, it could pass into law without the full debate and major revisions it requires. We urge our parliamentarians to take steps to prevent this from happening.”
This is an important debate for Scotland as well as the rest of the UK and our European neighbours. We should not turn our backs on science that can help feed the world. Equally, there is a responsibility to ensure that technologies are subject to high standards and clear criteria, not only scientifically but ethically, socially, environmentally and economically.
Combining these objectives should not be beyond the wit of politicians and a willingness to listen to reasonable concerns will be
an early test for Mr Sunak.