Ilona Amos: We need to know more about GM crops as debate rages

The debate over genetically modified crops and whether we should grow them or eat them excites strong feelings on both sides. The argument has intensified since the Scottish Government announced last August it would exploit new rules allowing countries to opt out of growing GM crops authorised by the European Union.

As the debate rages, we need to know more about GM crops. Picture: PA

Justifying the ban, Richard Lochhead, then rural affairs minister, said: “Scotland’s £14 billion food sector has a reputation for a clean and green image across the world and allowing the cultivation of GM crops could damage that unique selling point.”

The ban has sparked outrage in some quarters, particularly from scientists and farmers, who fear a negative impact on food, healthcare and research. Scotland’s former chief science adviser Professor Muffy Calder warned of “apocalyptic” consequences that could threaten the very assets it aims to protect. She claimed the decision could leave key cash crops such as potatoes, soft fruits and barley vulnerable to diseases that “could come and wipe us out”.

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Other experts said the ban flies in the face of a tradition of intellectual freedom and scientific leadership dating back to the Enlightenment, and will lead to a brain drain.

Others, including the Soil Association, have welcomed the restrictions. They say adopting a cautious approach is the best way forward since the genie cannot be put back in the bottle once the lid is off. The issue has even split the scientific community, with one environmental risk specialist describing the pro-GM campaign by fellow academics as akin to a “religious crusade” peddling visions of “damnation”.

Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, predicted global population growth means we will need to produce at least 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed everyone. So it’s pretty clear we need to come up with efficient and sustainable solutions – and sharpish.

Amidst all this brouhaha it may or may not be a surprise to discover that half of the UK population do not feel well informed about GM crops and a further six per cent have never even heard of them. So perhaps the time has come for us to do a bit of research of our own and gain some new enlightenment on what is a fairly confusing and highly emotive topic.

To help us, the UK’s national academy of science has today published a new fact-based guide aimed at answering some of the biggest concerns ordinary folks may have about the technology. The Royal Society has drawn on the expertise of its fellows and other plant specialists to summarise the scientific and technological evidence about GM crops to help people make up their own minds about the pros and cons. It comes in a downloadable booklet with answers to 18 key questions and an accompanying animation to explain the basic science of GM, compared to conventional plant breeding.

The document addresses such questions as which genes have been introduced and why; whether it is safe to eat GM foods; threats to the environment; where the plants are being grown; and who owns the technology.

The organisation is also staging a UK-wide series of events entitled Growing Tomorrow’s Dinner: Should GM be on the table? The first is at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 June.

Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan concedes that the answers will not end the controversy, but hopes they will “inform people about the science and allow those who might previously have felt excluded from the discussion to form a view”.