novel cuisine or unpalatable prospect by gjmpzlaezgx


									                                                12> Patrick                              16>                                          20>

                                                                                                           Chief Scientific Adviser
                                                                                                           View of the Government

                                                                                                                                                        Round the table
                                                                                                Sir John                                     A range

                                                                   Do we even need GM?
Issue 06 | 2011
                                                Holden and                               Beddington                                   of participants
                                                Professor Giles                          discusses                                    put each other
                                                Oldroyd take                             global food                                  straight on
                                                part in a lively                         supply issues                                where we go
                                                exchange                                                                              from here

The Food Standards Agency magazine with teeth

                             novel cuisine
                            or unpalatable

01>        Food for thought GM may, or may not, be the
           answer. But what is the question? Frank Chalmers

04> International fare GM-based agriculture worldwide
06> Reading the labels The GM food regulations
           ensure GM foods don’t slip under the radar.
           David Jefferies

08> New ingredients EFSA scientific panels evaluate all
           GM food and feed for safety. Howard Davies

10>        Public attitudes What have we learned by talking
           to people? Robyn Ackerman and Micah McGuire

12>        Exchange of views Do we really need GM? Patrick
           Holden and Giles Oldroyd debate the issue

15>        Place settings The Government sets out the five
           principles behind its policies on GM

18>        Scotland The Scottish Government outlines why it
           is opposed to the introduction of GM crops

19>        Wales There will be no welcome in the hillside for
           GM, the Welsh Assembly Government says

26>       Feeding the world? Parliamentary Under-Secretary

                                                                                           2> Root and branch
          of State Stephen O’Brien outlines the views of the
          Department for International Development

28> The bioscientist There are gains to be made by the                                     Sandy Lawrie provides some historical perspective to the
          world’s poor, says Mark Buckingham, Deputy Chair,
                                                                                           development of genetic modification
          Agricultural Biotechnology Council

29>       Out of Africa GM represents nothing but a threat to
          African agriculture, says Mariam Mayet, Director of
          the African Centre for Biosafety

                                                 Frank Chalmers
                                                 020 7276 8805

                                                 Sub editor
                                                 Ricki Ostrov

                                                 Editorial panel

                                                                                           16> Global challenge                 20> Round the table
                                                 Terrence Collis, Andrew Wadge,
 The Food Standards Agency magazine with teeth   Stephen Humphreys, Frank Chalmers

                                                 SPY Design and Publishing
Contact Bite at:                                                                           Science and technology               ‘Where do we go from here?’
Food Standards Agency                            Subscriptions
125 Kingsway                                     Marfot Miah
                                                                                           will help to secure future           Champions of farming, food
London                                           020 7276 8849                             food supplies, says                  production, consumers and
WC2B 6NH                               
                                                                                           Sir John Beddington                  science try to agree a route
                                                                                                       FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How do we frame
the question?

            ou may recall the old joke:        Adviser Sir John Beddington explains
            ‘A farmer is standing at a         why he considers that technologies such as
                                                                                                           Frank Chalmers
            crossroads. Someone                GM could play a part in securing our future
                                                                                                           Editor, Bite
            approaches and asks which          food security, and Stephen O’Brien,
            direction to take to reach their   Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
destination. He thinks for a minute and        at the Department for International
answers: “Well, I wouldn’t start from          Development, explains why he believes that
here.”’ We got a similar answer when           GM is a valuable addition to the toolbox.
we asked a farmer, a consumer, a food             Mark Buckingham, a scientist from the
manufacturer and a scientist: ‘Where           Agriculture and Biotechnology Council,
do we go from here on GM?’                     adds his views on why GM could provide
    Of course, we are where we are.            part of the answer to world hunger.
The Department for Environment, Food           Mariam Mayet, from South African NGO
and Rural Affairs (Defra) has just approved    the African Centre for Biosafety, argues        I hope that this
a new crop trial on aphid-resistant wheat.     forcefully that GM is not the panacea that
This is the third GM trial currently           the West suggests it might be in Africa.
                                                                                               issue of Bite will
approved in the UK. The other two are          Her NGO’s view is that it is a tool that you    encourage all
examining pest-resistant and blight-
resistant potatoes.
                                               have to update and pay for every year –
                                               and one that you can’t save or share
                                                                                               interested parties
    The Government’s GM policy is              with a neighbour.                               to question whether
based upon five key principles. The
emphasis placed on listening to different
                                                  GM is a devolved matter within the UK
                                               and the devolved Governments have their
                                                                                               their approach
views on GM has prompted us to publish         own take on it. Ministers from the Scottish     addresses the
this themed issue of Bite and to consider
the wider landscape. The view of the
                                               and Welsh governments provide a case for
                                               having a ‘GM-free’ brand for agriculture in
                                                                                               real concerns that
participants in our roundtable discussion      their respective countries.                     some consumers
– the aforementioned farmer, consumer,
food manufacturer and scientist – is that
should there be another debate about the
                                                  With the FSA remit focusing clearly on
                                               food safety, we’ve taken the opportunity to
                                               outline the regulatory process that exists to
                                                                                               have about GM.
use of GM, it should be framed around          control the introduction of GM foods in
how we produce food and the challenges         Europe. An EFSA scientific panel member
of feeding a growing world population.         also describes the assessment process that
It should not start with whether the           takes place at the European Union level.
technology is a good or a bad thing.              The FSA doesn’t claim to have the
    Patrick Holden, Director of the            answers when it comes to the introduction
Sustainable Food Trust, and Professor          of GM food or GM technology. I hope,
Giles Oldroyd, of the John Innes Centre,       however, that this issue of Bite will
debate whether the world actually needs        encourage all interested parties to question
GM or whether other means of farming are       whether their approach addresses the
better for the environment and for people.     real concerns that some consumers have
    The Government’s Chief Scientific          about GM.

                                                                                                             Bite Issue 6 2011 1

   How did we                                                    Genetic modification

   get to here?
                                                                 involves inserting one
                                                                 gene (or more) that
                                                                 would not normally be
                                                                 found into the target

   Genetic modification is the process of changing the DNA                    he science of genetics has
                                                                              advanced enormously
   of any living thing (plants, animals or micro-organisms) in                following the discovery in
   a way that does not occur in nature. Sandy Lawrie, Head                    1953 of the structure of
                                                                              DNA. That discovery laid
   of Novel Foods at the Food Standards Agency, provides         the foundation for the science of
   some historical perspective                                   ‘molecular biology’ and, during the six
                                                                 or so decades since, more and more
                                                                 has been revealed about how DNA
                                                                 defines the way that plants, animals
                                                                 and other living things behave.
                                                                    A single DNA molecule contains a
                                                                 huge amount of information and the
                                                                 development of computer systems
                                                                 has greatly helped the development
                                                                 of modern molecular biology. This
                                                                 knowledge has opened the way to
                                                                 major advances in many areas of
                                                                 biology, including understanding and
                                                                 treating diseases and breeding new
                                                                 crop varieties.
                                                                    Typically, genetic modification
                                                                 involves inserting one gene (or more)
                                                                 that would not normally be found in
                                                                 the target organism, but it can also
                                                                 refer to altering, deactivating or deleting
                                                                 genes that are already present.
                                                                    For example, introducing new
                                                                 genes into bacteria and other
                                                                 micro-organisms has revolutionised
                                                                 the production of enzymes that are
                                                                 used in domestic products such as
                                                                 biological washing powders, as well
                                                                 as in food manufacturing and in
                                                                 biological research.
                                                                    Although molecular biology has
                                                                 many applications, the aspect that
                                                                 has probably attracted the most
                                                                 debate is the genetic modification of
                                                                 crops. Producing a GM crop typically

2 Bite Issue 6 2011
It is estimated
                                                  The first GM crops
                                                                                                A type of GM farmed
that 62% of global                                were harvested in                             salmon has been
cotton production                                 1996 in the US                                developed in the
involves the use                                                                                US, which is being
of genetically                                                                                  reviewed for future use
modified cotton

involves introducing genes into a               How much are GM crops being used?               What is the FSA’s position on GM?
plant so that it expresses a new                The use of GM crops has grown year-on-          The FSA’s view is that GM food and GM
characteristic, such as resistance              year since 1996 when the first crops –          animal feed products should each undergo
to attack by insects.                           insect-resistant maize and herbicide-tolerant   a stringent case-by-case safety assessment
   These added genes were originally            soya – were harvested in the US. At a global    before they are put on the market, and
isolated from other plants or from              level, GM crop varieties now account for a      consumers should have the right to choose
micro-organisms, such as soil bacteria,         significant proportion of several major         whether they buy and eat GM products.
that would not normally transfer their genes    commodity crops (see following article).        Both of these requirements are met
to the target crop. As molecular biology has       Only two types of GM crops are grown         through current regulations.
advanced, it has become possible to             commercially in the EU. No GM crops are
manufacture completely new genes by             grown in the UK, but a type of insect-
chemical means. This is known as                resistant maize is grown to a limited extent     What is DNA and what
‘synthetic biology’.                            in Spain, and in a few other European
                                                                                                 do genes do?
                                                countries, for use as animal feed. A GM
Which crops have been modified?                 potato used for industrial (non-food)
So far, most GM crops have been                 starch production is being cultivated in         DNA – short for deoxyribonucleic acid –
modified to help overcome two of the            three countries.                                 is a very long molecule that is found in
major problems faced by commercial                 There has been some debate about the          every cell of plants and animals. The
farmers, namely insect pests and weeds.         impact of GM crops and whether they              DNA contains the information needed
As an alternative to spraying insecticides      provide the expected benefits to farmers         by the cell to function, grow and divide.
onto the crop, it has been possible to          and the environment. The Department for          Each DNA molecule is tightly coiled into
introduce genes that allow the plant to         Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has          a package called a chromosome.
manufacture insecticides called ‘Bt             commissioned an independent, systematic             Each chromosome contains a large
proteins’, which are naturally found in         review of available data on the impact of        number of specific sequences called
common soil bacteria such as                    GM crops that is due to be published later       genes that provide the blueprints for
Bacillus thuringiensis.                         this year.                                       manufacturing all the different proteins
   It is estimated that 62% of global                                                            that the cell needs. These proteins may
cotton production involves the use of           How might GM be used in the                      have a structural function, like collagen,
genetically modified Bt cotton varieties.       near future?                                     or they may be important for the cell’s
By making a crop tolerant of a herbicide        There is some interest in crops with             metabolism, like insulin.
that kills other plants, farmers can control    improved nutrient content, and the first            In some cases, a single change in a
weeds more effectively.                         examples of soya and maize with altered          gene can result in an obvious difference
   Genetic modification could also be           fat content are currently being assessed.        in the plant or animal, for example in the
used to help create plant varieties with        GM animals are widely used in medical            colour of flowers or the ability to see red
other properties to give foods improved         research but not in food production. This        and green colours. In other cases the
nutrient levels (increased vitamin A in rice,   may change in future, as the US authorities      result may be more subtle – many
or increased polyunsaturated oils in            are reviewing a type of GM farmed salmon         changes in DNA do not cause any
cereals). Such products are at an               that has been modified to grow throughout        observable change in the appearance or
advanced stage of development but               the winter months, so that it reaches adult      behaviour of the organism.
have not yet been marketed.                     proportions much quicker.

                                                                                                                            Bite Issue 6 2011 3

GM food around
the world
GM crops have been introduced increasingly
worldwide since 1996, according to the
International Service for the Acquisition
of Agri-biotech Applications

           he planting of GM crops has        of biotech crops in 2010, equivalent to
           increased each year since their    43% of the global total. Brazil increased
           arrival in 1996, and in 2010       its hectares under GM by 4 million.
           biotech crops accounted for            Developing countries grew 48% of
           10% of global cropland,            global biotech crops in 2010, and will
according to the International Service        exceed industrialised nations in their

for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech           plantings of biotech crops by 2015,
Applications (ISAAA). Also in that year,      according to Clive James, founder and
the 10 largest biotech crop-growing           chair of the ISAAA.
countries all had more than 1 million             Last year three nations grew biotech
hectares in production.                       crops commercially for the first time –
                                              Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar) and Sweden,       farmers
  Top 10 biotech crop-growing                 the first Scandinavian country to
  countries                                   commercialise biotech crops.
  In hectare rank order, they include:
  1 United States (66.8 million)              The ISAAA describes itself as ‘a
  2 Brazil (25.4 million)                     not-for-profit organisation with an
  3 Argentina (22.9 million)                  international network of centres
  4 India (9.4 million)                       designed to contribute to the alleviation
  5 Canada (8.8 million)                      of hunger and poverty by sharing
  6 China (3.5 million)                       knowledge and crop biotechnology
  7 Paraguay (2.6 million)                    applications’.
  8 Pakistan (2.4 million)
  9 South Africa (2.2 million)
  10 Uruguay (1.1 million)                    The most commonly
                                              grown genetically
   For comparison, about 5 million            modified crops
hectares of land is used for growing crops
in the UK.
   The five principal developing and newly
industrialised countries growing biotech
crops – Brazil, Argentina, India, China and
South Africa – planted 63 million hectares

4 Bite Issue 6 2011
countries worldwide
growing GM crops

                      hectares of arable land
                      being used

                                       10%of world’s arable land
                                          used for GM crops

                                                                   MHA = million hectares


 A closer look
 at regulation
 How can we tell if GM products are on sale in
 the UK? How are GM products regulated?
 David Jefferies, from the Food Standards
 Agency’s Novel Foods Branch, looks at how
 it all stacks up

                                                   only products containing GM ingredients
 David Jefferies                                   that might be found in your local shops
 FSA Novel                                         are the occasional products imported
 Foods Branch                                      from outside the EU, such as Hershey
                                                   chocolate bars or catering packs
                                                   of cooking oil.
                                                      The three key regulations that
                                                   address GM food and feed are EU wide.
                                                   The first, the Genetically Modified (GM)

                                                   Food and Feed Regulation (EC)
                  ost people are aware that        1829/2003, covers the authorisation
                  some crop plants have            process and sets out the labelling
                  been genetically modified        requirements for GM food and feed in
                  and that these modified          the EU, including in the UK.
                  plants may be used as               A second, the Traceability and
  food ingredients. But when you go to the         Labelling Regulation (EC) 1830/
  local supermarket, how do you tell what          2003, deals in more detail with
  products contain GM material?                    the labelling of GM foods from
     The answer, of course, is to read the         the farm on which they are grown,
  label. All products made using GM                through the wholesalers, food
  ingredients must be labelled as such,            processors and manufacturers,
  regardless of the amount of GM material          to the retailers who sell the products.
  in the final product. If it is not labelled as   This regulation is intended to ensure
  ‘genetically modified’ or ‘contains GM           the traceability of GM foods throughout
  soya or maize’ for example, then it has          the food chain.
  not been made using GM ingredients.                 The final regulation, Directive
    Yet with so many genetically-modified          2001/18 (EC), covers the growing of
organisms (GMOs) authorised for food               GM crops, for which Defra, as the
use, and with GM crops grown worldwide,            department that deals with agriculture
there are still few foods containing GM            and the environment, has responsibility.
ingredients in the shops. Due to adverse
publicity about GMOs in the 1990s, the             GM foods: what is allowed?
major food retailers decided not to stock          The EU-wide regulations that cover
products containing GM ingredients. The            GM foods (and also GM animal

 6 Bite Issue 6 2011
feed) ensure that before GM food
ingredients can be sold in the shops they
must be authorised. GM foods are only
authorised for sale if they are judged not to
present a risk to health or the environment,
and to be of no less nutritional value than
the foods they are intended to replace.
   The main component of the
authorisation process is a pre-market
safety assessment, which is carried out by
the European Food Safety Authority
(EFSA). Applicant companies are required
to submit a dossier of information for each
GMO, a large part of which will be studies
that demonstrate the safety of the GMO.
Once EFSA has published its safety
assessment, it is discussed by EU member
states before authorisation can be granted.
Once authorised, a GMO can be marketed
in all 27 member states, including the UK.
   A list of authorised GMOs is available
(see further information below). The
majority of the entries are varieties of
crops, such as maize and soya, which are      GM foods are only authorised for sale if
not usually sold for consumption but are
processed first before being incorporated
                                              they are judged not to present a risk to
into foods. Currently, the list contains no   health or the environment, and to be of no
fruits or vegetables of the type you might    less nutritional value than the foods they
find in your local supermarket. There is a
variety of authorised potato, but this will   are intended to replace.
never be seen in the shops as it has been
engineered to produce a type of starch
used exclusively in the production of
paper. It is also one of the only GM crops    labelled as long as the GMO is not present     Enforcing the regulations
that has been authorised for cultivation in   in the end product.                            GM foods are covered by the same
the EU, the other being a variety of maize;      Products such as milk, meat and eggs        enforcement regulations as other foods.
neither of these crops is grown in the UK.    that are derived from animals fed GM           In the UK it is trading standards officers
                                              animal feed also do not have to be             or environmental health officers of
Exceptions to the requirements                labelled, as the definition of ‘genetically    local authorities who enforce food law,
Foods containing known GM ingredients         modified’ does not include eggs, milk, or      including for GM foods. Port health
must be labelled as such. However,            meat products from such animals.               authorities also play a central role, as
foods may contain up to 0.9% of GM               In the absence of EU rules governing        much of our food is imported through
material from authorised GMOs without         the use of labels on GM-free products,         the ports. Surveillance at ports includes
a requirement for labelling, as long as       some member states (for example Austria        physical checks of cargoes, checks for
the presence of this material is accidental   and Germany) have introduced voluntary         compliance with labelling requirements
or unavoidable and the food producer          national schemes on GM-free labelling,         and, when necessary, sampling of
can demonstrate that it has taken all         while France plans to introduce a national     products, especially if the presence of
reasonable measures to avoid cross-           law in 2012. The problem with these            unauthorised GMOs is suspected.
contamination.                                national rules is that they all impose
   Foods that have been processed or          different criteria as to what qualifies as a
                                                                                             Further information
obtained with the help of GM technology       GM-free product, which can be confusing
                                                                                             The list of authorised GMOs can be
(for example, cheese that has been            for consumers. As a result, the UK is
                                                                                             found at:
produced with the help of an enzyme           currently trying to stimulate discussion at
from a GM source) do not have to be           EU level on a harmonised approach.

                                                                                                                         Bite Issue 6 2011 7

EFSA scientists put
safety first
The European Food Safety Authority GMO Panel
is responsible for evaluating GM food and feed
before they can be marketed in the EU. Panel
member Howard Davies explains

                      Professor Howard Davies
                      James Hutton Institute

             he European Food Safety Authority
             Scientific Panel on Genetically
             Modified Organisms provides
             independent, high quality scientific
             advice to EFSA, in support of its
role as the primary agency for delivering risk
assessments of GMOs and derived food/feed
within the EU.
    The panel, which consists of 21 scientific
experts from European research institutes,
universities or risk assessment bodies, has
three primary working groups: molecular
characterisation, food/feed, and environment.
It is within these working groups that
applications for import of GM food/feed or for
cultivation in the EU are first evaluated, each
group focusing its skills on the relevant areas
of the application dossiers. The panel and
working groups are supported by EFSA
scientific and administrative staff to
deliver the final opinions, which
are published in the
EFSA Journal.

8 Bite Issue 6 2011
                                                                                  Panel members

                                                                                  Panel members are appointed following an open call
                                                                                  from EFSA and a subsequent evaluation of their
                                                                                  credibility, scientific standing and skill base. The
                                                                                  independence of panel members and of any ad hoc
                                                                                  members invited to specific working groups is crucial.
                                                                                  Declarations of interest on agenda topics have to be
                                                                                  provided for all meetings, in addition to an overarching
                                                                                  annual declaration that itemises members' activities
                                                                                  that may be considered relevant to their roles.
                                                                                  Declarations, which are in the public domain, can
      Processing applications              Other activities                       result in ‘challenges’ from interested parties.
       Each application is allocated       While the evaluation of GMO               Disciplines covered by panel members include:
        a rapporteur and co-               applications is the panel’s raison     microbiology, toxicology, food science and food
         rapporteur from within each       d'être, it is involved in several      chemistry, animal nutrition, biostatistics and modelling,
          working group to work with       other activities including the         molecular ecology and biodiversity.
          a member of EFSA’s               development of guidance
          scientific staff to deliver      documents to assist applicants
           first drafts of opinions for    in the preparation of their risk
           discussion at the working       assessment.                            UK advisers: ACNFP,
           groups. It is at this point        The recent publication of
           that a detailed evaluation of   updated guidance on the selection
                                                                                  ACAF and ACRE
          data usually leads to            of comparators used to evaluate GM
          questions that applicants        crops is an example. Its production
          are required to address.         was driven by the fact that current    In addition to receiving authoritative advice on GMOs
         The working groups also           approaches for comparator selection    from the EFSA panel, the Food Standards Agency
        take into account comments         would not be the best option for       can call on advice about GM issues from UK experts
       from the EU member states.          more complex GMOs with multiple        by referring questions to its own Advisory Committee
          Questions can arise on, for      genes and traits.                      on Novel Foods and Processes and its Advisory
    example, experimental design,             As with many of these               Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs. These
   gaps in data, inconsistencies in        documents, a draft was published       committees do not duplicate the routine work of the
  the data, quality of figures and         for public consultation and EFSA       EFSA panel, but they do consider specific issues that
validity of interpretation.                also held a workshop with              may arise – for example by advising on new guidelines
   Applicants may also be asked to         stakeholders. After discussions, the   for safety assessments or looking into new scientific
update any bioinformatics analysis         final opinion was adapted              publications that are relevant to GM food safety.
using the most recent databases.           accordingly. Such tasks are usually       Environmental issues are the responsibility of the
The various working groups share           driven by a working group              Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
the questions they wish to ask             comprising selected members of all     and its devolved counterparts in Scotland, Wales and
applicants, to ensure consistency          three panel working groups plus ad     Northern Ireland. UK ministers are advised on the
and relevance.                             hoc experts as required. They are      potential environmental risks of GMOs by an
   Once all of the questions have          demanding in terms of time and         independent expert committee, the Advisory Committee
been addressed, the working                effort but are valuable in assisting   on Releases to the Environment (ACRE). EFSA examines
group contributions are collated           the panel in fulfilling its duties.    the environmental risk assessments in applications to
by EFSA staff and presented at                The panel deals with issues that    market GM crops in the EU. EFSA’s analysis is on an
the panel plenaries for discussion         can be many and varied, and the        EU-wide basis, reflecting the wide range of different
and possible adoption. This                workloads and travel involved          geographical and climatic conditions across Europe and
includes the adoption of the               (EFSA is based in Parma, Italy)        variations in agricultural practices. ACRE considers
panel's responses to all comments          can be considerable. EFSA is,          EFSA’s conclusions but focuses on the potential
raised by member states, which             therefore, working towards more        environmental impact under UK conditions.
are also published alongside the           teleconferencing to ease the travel    Sandy Lawrie
final opinion.                             burden and associated costs.

                                                                                                                            Bite Issue 6 2011 9

           When people think about           Robyn Ackerman                        Micah McGuire
           GM foods, their attitudes         Social and Market                     Communications
                                             Research, FSA                         Division, FSA
           are informed by more than
           concerns about food safety.
           Robyn Ackerman and Micah

           McGuire from the Food
                                                        he percentage of the UK public concerned about GM foods
           Standards Agency explain                     has declined from 43% in 2001 to 22% in 2011, according
           why the Agency looks beyond                  to the FSA’s most recent Public Attitudes Tracker. In addition,
                                                        research from across Europe suggests that we are among the
           the ‘for’ or ‘against’ approach              least concerned about GM.
           to GM, and what lessons it           In 2009, the Agency carried out work to better understand public
                                             attitudes to food technologies, including GM foods. Results showed that
           has learned on successfully       the majority of the UK public are either undecided or indifferent when it
                                             comes to GM foods, and that GM is not at the forefront of their
           engaging the public               concerns. In fact, GM foods came quite far down the list of food issues
                                             about which the UK public is concerned.
                                                In the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey, 17% of people were
                                             found to have a ‘pro’ attitude to GM, 31% were ‘anti’ GM and 53% were
                                             either undecided or had no views on GM foods. This was based on their

          Public perceptions
          and lessons learned
10 Bite Issue 6 2011
response to the statement: ‘On balance            We are taking this valuable opportunity
the advantages of genetically modified
(GM) food outweigh any dangers.’
                                                  to step back and review past dialogues on
    Further qualitative research carried out by   GM and other areas of science to ensure we
the Agency explored these issues in more
detail. People who were undecided said they
                                                  understand how best to engage the public
felt they lacked knowledge on the subject or
felt there was not enough evidence available
for them to form an opinion.
                                                  over such issues.
                                                  David Willetts
    Those who did not hold a view felt either     Minister of State for Universities and Science
that GM was a private issue rather than a
public one, or simply that GM was not a
priority for them. Both tended to err on the
side of caution when pressed for a view,          people can decide whether or not to eat a        GM technology in food and agriculture (see
and so tended to be more negative to GM           particular food they will feel more in           page 15) highlights the need to provide
food than positive.                               control. Their existing values or ideals, for    information and to listen to the views
    The Agency’s research on food                 example on food production in general and        of the public.
technologies suggests that when people            on science and technology, also play an             The Agency has learned from its
are asked to respond to new food                  important role.                                  engagement work about the need to talk to
technologies based on how they perceive              In 2010, the Agency made preparations         people openly when discussing new food
the risks and benefits, they will ask             to hold a GM dialogue, to be facilitated by an   technologies. The key conclusions the
questions such as:                                independent chair and steering group. In         Agency has reached include:
• Is it safe?                                     September 2010, the Government decided           • Knowledge about new technologies can
• What’s in it for me?                            not to proceed with this. David Willetts,          be limited, and people may feel they do
• What’s in it for ‘them’?                        Minister of State for Universities and             not know enough to be able to take part
• Will it harm the environment?                   Science, explained: ‘We are taking this            in discussions.
• What about the welfare of animals?              valuable opportunity to step back and review     • When carrying out research or
• Is it natural?                                  past dialogues on GM and other areas of            engagement activities, people must be
    The amount of personal control or             science to ensure we understand how best           allowed enough time to understand the
choice people feel they have also has an          to engage the public over such issues.’            issues under discussion.
impact on their attitudes. For example, if           The Government’s policy on the use of         • Presenting information in a fair and
                                                                                                     balanced way can be difficult. It is
                                                                                                     important to show all sides of the story
                                                                                                     and allow people to form their own
                                                                                                     opinions about the strength of different
                                                                                                   • When discussing new food technologies,
                                                                                                     the Agency can’t expect people to
                                                                                                     consider food safety only. It needs also to
                                                                                                     take account of people’s concerns about
                                                                                                     the environment, animal welfare and
                                                                                                     other ethical considerations, as all are
                                                                                                     important issues for the public.

                                                                                                   Further information
                                                                                                   The Public Attitudes Tracker can be
                                                                                                   found at:
                                                                                                   The European research can be found at:

                                                                                                                              Bite Issue 6 2011 11

Does the world need GM?
This issue’s exchange of                                Patrick Holden                                  Professor
                                                        Director, Sustainable                           Giles Oldroyd
views looks at whether                                  Food Trust                                      Senior Plant Scientist
GM might be a distraction                                                                               John Innes Centre

rather than a solution

                                                                                                  Hello Patrick
                                                                                                  We face the unprecedented challenge of
                                                                                                  feeding 9 billion people in a time of global
                                                                                                  climate change. The choice is stark:
                                                                                                  expand arable areas, meaning further
                                                                                                  destruction of rainforests, or increase
                                                                                                  productivity in existing arable areas. I am
                                                                                                  sure you will agree that the latter is
                                                  technology, including potential risks to the    preferable.
      Dear Giles,                                 environment and human health, and my               I fully support the principles of organic
                                                  ongoing conclusion is that I see no place       farming and believe we have to find ways
I read on your website that having                for the use of genetic engineering in           to sustainably produce the world’s staple
discovered the mechanism by which                 agriculture. The case against GM is             crops: wheat, maize, rice, soy, sorghum,
leguminous plants fix nitrogen, you hope          effectively made in the film Food Inc, which    cassava and cotton. But organic farming
that transferring this to non-legumes will        shows that GMOs lock farmers into a cycle       alone cannot feed 9 billion people
result in ‘farmers no longer having to rely       of corporate-controlled dependency on           because of the lower yields it incurs. We
on expensive nitrogen fertilisers’.               monoculture and herbicide use, without          have to find ways to improve the yields of
   Speaking as a farmer who has used no           increasing yields or delivering any other       conventional farming while reducing the
nitrogen fertiliser for over 38 years on my       public benefits.                                use of agrochemicals. This is where GM
Welsh hill farm, which produces grass and            Given the absence of a market for GM         helps, by using solutions from the natural
oats for our 75 dairy cows, I can honestly        foods and the huge risks and uncertainties,     world to tackle problems currently
say that nitrogen availability is not the         particularly in relation to the environment     addressed with agrochemicals. My own
limiting factor to the productivity of my         and public health, this debate has become       research on nitrogen fixing legumes is an
farming system. I believe that the single         a dangerous distraction from the urgent         example. Peas and beans have evolved a
most important unifying feature of                challenges currently confronting agriculture.   fantastic way of getting their own nitrogen,
sustainable agriculture, both in terms of         Surely it would be better to form new           making them self-fertilising. Why should
yields and promoting plant and animal             partnerships between eminent plant              we not use this natural process, through
health, is building soil fertility through crop   breeders such as yourself, policy makers        GM, to make cereal crops more
rotation. If one gets this right, I can testify   and producers, to develop strategies for        sustainable?
from direct experience that yields steadily       feeding a growing world population against         GM crops are now widely grown in all
increase over time.                               a background of climate change and              parts of the globe, including Europe. We
   Having initially been agnostic about GM        resource depletion without using GM?            live in a free market and farmers around
back in the mid-nineties, I took a long hard                                                      the world choose to buy GM seed
look at all the issues surrounding the            Best wishes, Patrick                            because of its yield benefit, from

12 Bite Issue 6 2011
                                                  Given the absence of a market for GM foods
                                                  and the huge risks and uncertainties,
                                                  particularly in relation to the environment and
                                                  public health, this debate has become a
                                                  dangerous distraction from the challenges
                                                  currently confronting agriculture.
                                                  Patrick Holden
                                                  Director, Sustainable Food Trust

large-scale soy producers in the US to
small-scale cotton farmers in India. GM
has been tested for 30 years and grown
commercially for 15 years: it is proven
safe. Europe is one of the largest buyers
of GM products. Clothes are made from
GM cotton, and beef, pork, chicken and
salmon available in British supermarkets
are produced using GM feed.                       which are entirely absent in the first         and many more billions of people would
    GM is safe, reliable and in demand. We        generation of GM crops. Rather than            starve to death. We cannot rely on the
need to move beyond the divisive issues           engineering nitrogen fixation into grain       farming technologies of 200 years ago to
surrounding GM and urgently need to use           crops, why not use marker-assisted             feed 9 billion people.
all available tools to tackle the global food     techniques to improve the qualities of             But GM has much more potential than
security crisis.                                  existing strains?                              simply addressing the nitrogen problem.
                                                      On safety, I have seen evidence from,      Already, many thousands of tons of
Best wishes, Giles                                as yet unpublished, GM animal feeding          insecticides are not applied thanks to GM
                                                  trials which identify negative health          insect-resistant cotton. There are GM
                                                  outcomes not previously observed due to        solutions being developed and trials
                                                  inadequacies in the current regulatory         underway for pathogen resistance,
Dear Giles                                        approval process. To proceed further down      drought resistance, salt tolerance –
I dispute your points on the need, efficacy       the GM path will also risk a further           all targeted at preserving our natural
and safety of GMOs.                               narrowing of the agricultural gene pool and    resources and reducing the use of
   On need, you didn’t respond to my point        cause other ecological damage, such as         pesticides, fungicides and irrigation
about soil fertility rather than nitrogen being   outcrossing to non-GM varieties.               water. I am not advocating a reduction in
the limiting factor to increasing yields.                                                        marker-assisted breeding, but argue to
Because I suspect you doubt this, it’s a          Best wishes, Patrick                           use all available techniques, to generate
shame you can’t witness the growing                                                              sustainable, high-yielding crops.
productivity of my farm, which has received                                                          A major study by the EU concluded
no nitrogen for 38 years. The 2009 IAASTD                                                        recently that GM crops are no more
report, headed by the Chief Scientist at          Dear Patrick                                   dangerous than crops produced by other
Defra, concluded that small scale                 There is a big difference in farming           methods, such as breeding. I refuse to
agro-ecological agriculture can equal or          practices for grass and oats on a Welsh hill   respond to an ‘unpublished result’. Unlike
even exceed yields from intensive farming.        farm and in the major wheat, maize, rice       in the past, the GM debate today must
   On efficacy, you claim that GM crops           and soy producing areas of the world. If       be based on fact and rationality.
have delivered yield advantages, but yield        world farming switched to organic then
is a function of multiple gene expressions,       global food prices would rise significantly    Best wishes, Giles

                                                                                                                           Bite Issue 6 2011 13

Dear Giles                                                                Dear Patrick
I was disappointed by your somewhat                                       Your statement that GM crops have failed to
patronising dismissal of my 'antiquated'                                  deliver lasting benefits is quite simply false.
farming practices on my Welsh hill, and                                   Recent estimates put yield gains from the
the assertion that if these methods were                                  cultivation of GM crops equivalent to
widely adopted, billions would starve.                                    production on 60 million hectares of land.
    This seemed especially unfair, given                                  That is more than three times the arable
your failure to respond to my substantive                                 area of the UK! Furthermore, GM crops have
points about the relationship between soil                                reduced pesticide use by 350 million kg.
fertility and yields, concerns about                                          For years you have promised that GM
narrowing of the gene pool and the                                        crops will lead to ecological catastrophes
potential risks to environmental and                                      and human health crises, but there is no
human health.                                   GM crops are not          case for either following 15 years of their
    Given the growing evidence that the         the problem, but          cultivation. Look at the recent report from
first generation of GM crops has failed to                                the European Union that involved 25 years
deliver any lasting benefits, either to the     part of the solution      of research from 500 independent
public or producers, I consider your            to sustainably            research groups and concluded that GM
beguiling proposition, that some kind of                                  crops are as safe as crops produced by
utopia where GM crops will fix their own        feeding 9 billion         conventional breeding.
nitrogen and produce bumper yields from
drought-stricken saline soils, as a
dangerous distraction from the urgent
                                                Professor Giles Oldroyd
                                                                              The European Union, the Royal Society
                                                                          and the US National Academy of Sciences
                                                                          all conclude that GM crops are safe and
productivity, food-security, climate-change     Senior Plant Scientist    effective. GM crops are not the problem,
and resource-depletion challenges               John Innes Centre         but part of the solution to sustainably
confronting agriculture.                                                  feeding 9 billion people, something that
    It reinforces my conviction that in                                   neither organic, nor conventional farming
addressing these challenges, we must                                      alone can do.
put aside ideological differences and                                         We both strive to create sustainable food
assemble groups of experts in ecological                                  production systems. I wish we could move
agriculture, working regionally and globally,                             beyond this polarising issue of GM and
to develop sustainable and resilient food                                 focus on the real problems that face global
systems for the future. I would happily                                   agriculture.
work with you in such a group, on the
understanding that any discussions about                                  Best wishes, Giles
GM are evidence based, intellectually
rigorous and conducted in an atmosphere
                                                                          Patrick Holden and Giles Oldroyd have
of mutual respect.
                                                                          since agreed to communicate outside
                                                                          of the forum of this exchange.
Best wishes, Patrick

14 Bite Issue 6 2011
                                                                                                        PLAcE SETTINGS
                                                                                                     FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What is the Government’s
policy on GM?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and lead
Minister on GM, explains the Government’s position

                                                              conventional and organic crops, so that choice
Lord Taylor of Holbeach                                       can be exercised and economic interests
Under-Secretary of State                                      appropriately protected.
of the Department of                                       • we recognise that GM technology could deliver
Environment, Food and                                         benefits providing it is used safely and
Rural Affairs and lead                                        responsibly, in particular as one of a range of
Minister on GM                                                tools to address the longer term challenges of
                                                              global food security, climate change, and the

                                                              need for more sustainable agricultural
           he Government recognises that GM                   production. Developing countries should have fair
           crops and foods are a controversial                access to such technology and make their own
           issue for some people, with often sharply          informed decisions regarding its use.
           polarised views being expressed as to           • to encourage innovation, fair market access for
           whether this technology should be                  safe products and economic growth, we believe
regarded as fundamentally either a ‘good’ or                  that regulation of this technology must be
‘bad’ thing. Protecting human health and the                  proportionate.
environment is our overriding priority – and                  The global population is estimated to increase to
our policy for GM is based on the following                9 billion by 2050 and the Food and Agriculture
key principles:                                            Organisation estimates that global food demand
• we will only agree to the planting of GM crops,          will increase by 70% compared to 2005-07 levels.
   the release of other types of GM organism, or              In this context we need to consider all the options
   the marketing of GM food or feed products, if a         that are available to increase agricultural efficiency,
   robust risk assessment indicates that it is safe        and be able to do this safely and sustainably.
   for people and the environment. GM product              Alongside others, GM approaches within plant
   applications should be assessed for safety on           breeding are one of the potential tools that could
   a case-by-case basis, taking full account               help us to move forward provided they are subject to
   of the scientific evidence.                             rigorous, case-by-case risk assessments. The
• we will ensure consumers are able to exercise            Government wants people to keep an open mind
   choice through clear GM labelling rules and the         and look at the issues fairly, taking due account of
   provision of suitable information, and will listen to   the relevant scientific and other evidence.
   public views about the development and use of              Ultimately, UK farmers and consumers should be
   the technology.                                         able to choose whether or not to use or consume
• we support farmers having access to                      GM products that have been authorised as safe for
   developments in new technology and being                commercial marketing. But in order to facilitate this
   able to choose whether or not to adopt them.            choice, we must ensure that regulation of the
   If and when GM crops are grown in England               technology is robust and proportionate and that we
   commercially, we will implement pragmatic and           provide a suitable environment for commercial
   proportionate measures to segregate these from          investment, market access and innovation.

                                                                                                              Bite Issue 6 2011 15

Global food system
                                                                                                 of new varieties or breeds of crops,
                                                                                                 livestock and aquatic organisms; advances
                                                                                                 in nutrition for livestock and aquaculture,
                                                                                                 soil science and agro-ecology.

faces challenges
                                                                                                     A key component will be improving crop
                                                                                                 traits. Marker-assisted selection has
                                                                                                 capitalised on advances in low-cost DNA
                                                                                                 sequencing to offer new and more efficient
                                                                                                 ways to select for desirable traits,
                                                                                                 compared with traditional breeding
The case for urgent action to ensure a sustainable, secure                                       techniques. Advances have also been
and safe global food system is now compelling, says                                              made with the use of genetic modification
                                                                                                 techniques – those that introduce gene
Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington                                          sequences from a different species – to
                                                                                                 develop GM crops.
                                                                                                     GM crops have already demonstrated
                                                                                                 benefits in increasing yields and decreasing
                                                                                                 losses from pests and diseases, and are
                                                 food system adapts to and mitigates             being grown globally in an increasing trend.
Sir John Beddington
                                                 against climate change. This will require       The total global area sown with GM crops
Government Chief
                                                 making better use of existing knowledge to      in 2010 was estimated as 148 million
Scientific Adviser
                                                 increase food production, reducing the          hectares in 29 countries (see further
                                                 currently large levels of waste throughout
                                                 the food supply chain, improving
                                                 governance of the food system and

                                                 influencing demand from consumers.
      n the next 40 years, the global food          Crucially though, this challenge will
      system will experience an                  require investment in research and
      unprecedented confluence of                development of new practices and
      pressures. The needs of a growing          technologies to increase the quantity,
      world population, likely to demand a       efficiency and sustainability of food
more varied and high-quality diet, will need     production, secure ecosystem services,
to be satisfied, while critical resources such   keep pace with evolving threats and
as water, energy and land become                 meet the needs of the world’s
increasingly scarce, and the impacts of          poorest communities.
climate change will become more                     No single technology is capable of
prominent.                                       delivering sustainable, resilient high levels
   Furthermore, while the global food            of agricultural productivity; instead, a
system currently delivers food for many          pluralistic research portfolio with a broad
people, it is nevertheless already failing in    perspective will need to be pursued.
two critical ways: consuming the world’s         This should include biotechnology but
natural resources at an unsustainable            also agronomic and agro-ecological
rate, and failing the very poorest, with         approaches. Further, research will need
almost one billion of the least advantaged       to address a more complex set of goals
and most vulnerable people still suffering       to encourage the sustainable intensification
from hunger.                                     of agricultural practices that simultaneously
   The Government Office for Science             raise yields and increase resource
2011 Foresight Report The Future of Food         efficiency (including land), while
and Farming: Challenges and Choices for          reducing the negative environmental
Global Sustainability (see further               impact of production.
information) concluded that a key                   There are already many promising areas
challenge is to balance supply and demand        of science to be fully explored with the
sustainably to ensure adequate stability         potential to contribute to sustainable
and affordability in food supplies, while the    intensification, including the development

16 Bite Issue 6 2011
information). This is up from 114.3 million    rightly need to be addressed.                     technology must be established rigorously
hectares in 23 countries in 2007. This was        Nevertheless, the wider debate has             before its deployment. Any such
the 15th consecutive year of increase in the   become increasingly polarised. This has           decision-making process should be set out
area devoted to GM crops, with much of         led to what could reasonably be described         transparently, and consider competing
the increase in low income countries, which    as an overly precautionary approach in            risks, including the potential costs of not
now account for 48% of the world’s GM          political spheres, particularly within the EU,    utilising a new technology and the benefits
crop production.                               where only one GM crop has been                   this will bring.
   Scientific developments leading             authorised for cultivation for food use in the       Bearing in mind the scale of the global
towards the next generation of GM crops        past 13 years. This is despite positive           challenge faced, can we really afford to
are aimed at improving and combining           European Food Safety Authority scientific         take an overly precautionary approach
existing traits, and developing new traits     risk assessments on other applications.           towards new scientific developments to
such as drought or saline tolerance and           From my position as Government Chief           meet those challenges?
increased nutritional content. Used in         Scientific Adviser, I find this situation quite
combination with other improved                uncomfortable. I believe new technologies         Further information
agricultural technologies or systems these     in the food system, such as GM, should not        The Foresight report can be found at:
crops could yield substantial benefits.        be excluded a priori. If we have new    
   However, many people in the UK and EU       technologies that can actually solve              bispartners/foresight/docs/food-and-
remain sceptical of GM. Concerns range         problems in agricultural production, which        farming/11-546-future-of-food-and-
from health and environmental risks, ethical   conventional breeding or other technologies       farming-report.pdf
issues, and the need to share access to        cannot, then clearly we need to be thinking       Figures from:
and benefits from GM crops, particularly in    about adopting them. Alongside this, the          uploads/isaaa_2010/ISAAA_Briefs_42-
the developing world. These are issues that    health and environmental safety of any new        Executive_Summary_Feb_2011.pdf

                                                                                                                           Bite Issue 6 2011 17

                                                                                                escalating feed prices experienced by our
The Scottish Government continues to be                                                         livestock farmers. We will, however, argue
fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM                                                  strenuously against extending the
                                                                                                threshold to food imports – something
crops. Scotland’s Minister for Environment and                                                  we’re confident UK and European
                                                                                                consumers will support us in.
Climate Change, Stewart Stevenson, explains why                                                    There are a number of countries and
                                                                                                many regions within the EU that take a
                                                                                                similar stance to Scotland. Within the
                                                                                                UK, agriculture is devolved and all four

                                                                                                countries have their own views; but that is
            ome have asked whether the            quality food and drink – a reputation we      no reason why we can’t all coexist. If, for
            Scottish Government has               believe could be jeopardised if Scotland      example, England decided to grow GM
            softened its position on              became known for growing GM crops.            crops, we should be able to manage
            genetically modified (GM) crops       We know that European consumers have          any cross-border issues just as they are
            since it was first elected in 2007.   little confidence that GM food is safe to     managed in the rest of Europe.
The answer to that is no – we remain              eat. Some will argue that robust                 Some claim our position could adversely
fundamentally opposed to growing GM               coexistence measures can counter the          affect Scottish biological research
crops. That is why we support in principle        problems of cross-pollination or              institutes that wish to carry out GM
the European Commission’s attempts to             encroachment of GM crops. But, even if        research. Whilst we do not fund any
bring in changes that would allow countries       that was the case, there are costs involved   research that leads directly to the
and regions freedom to choose whether or          in keeping GM and non-GM crops and            production of GM crops, we do support
not to grow GM crops on their territory.          products separate along the supply chain,     modern plant breeding techniques.
   The reasons for our position are               which nobody will want to pay.                Research and innovation, and conventional
multi-faceted. First, scientists cannot                We accept there are a number of          plant breeding, offer many possible
give categorical assurances that there is         approved and labelled GMOs in use in          solutions for the challenges for food
no risk to the environment from growing           Scotland, as there are elsewhere. Imported    production. Crop breeding is an important
GM crops. The EU risk assessment of GM            GM soya for animal feed, various              income earner for Scotland – our crop
crops cannot take into account all Europe’s       therapeutics (for example insulin) for        scientists and breeders generate around
regional variations in landscape, climate         human and animal use, and some food           £160 million of business for the Scottish
and agricultural practice. Scotland has           technology aids may have been derived         and UK economies every year.
many unique features and a rich                   from GM sources. We supported the EU’s           In summary, we remain fundamentally
biodiversity, which we will not put at            0.1% threshold for unapproved GMO             opposed to the cultivation of GM crops,
risk by growing GM crops.                         material in imports of non-GM animal feed     a position which we strongly believe will
   There is also Scotland’s reputation for        in order to ease the supply problems and      protect Scotland’s precious environment.

18 Bite Issue 6 2011

The Welsh Government                       cross Europe and the world, GM    800,000 hectares of our land area.
                                           crops continue to be an emotive      These areas of conservation and natural
supports a ‘broader and                    issue for many.                   beauty are vital resources underpinning
more holistic evaluation                      Here in Wales, the Welsh
                                           Government has consulted on
                                                                             the health, wellbeing and prosperity of the
                                                                             people of Wales. They also attract many
of GMOs’ and the right      GM and is maintaining a restrictive and          visitors and tourists and make an
                            precautionary approach to the growing of         important contribution to our economy,
of EU regions to make       GM crops. This is not even a political issue     so we have a duty to protect them. This
their own decisions on      here, as our policy enjoys both cross-party
                            support and the backing of the majority of
                                                                             means taking a precautionary approach to
                                                                             the potential impacts of new technologies
the cultivation of GM       the Welsh public.                                like GM on our environment and the
                                Wales’ agricultural, environmental and       associated economic impact.
crops in their territory.   social landscape has certainly influenced           Of course, we are not the only country
                            our policy. We are a small country of            to be wary of GM. There is widespread
John Griffiths, Welsh       around 2 million hectares, but a significant     public concern about GM crops and food
Minister for Environment    proportion of our agricultural land serves       at a Welsh, UK and European Union (EU)
                            a vibrant food and drink manufacturing           level. A national opinion poll in June 2010
and Sustainable             industry. We have made considerable              showed that 89% of people want labels on
                            investments into agri-environment schemes        food from GM-fed animals and would be
Development, explains       and the organic sector to support this           prepared to pay more for food produced
                            industry. Food and drink manufacturing is        with GM-free labels.
                            the cornerstone of our rural economy and            Other EU countries, such as Austria and
                             it is vital that we protect this sector and     Germany, have already developed GM-free
                                                                                      labels for produce and we believe
                                                                                              the industry is well placed to
                                                                                              explore the commercial
                                                                                             opportunity that GM-free
                                                                                             labels could present in Wales
                                                                                            and the UK.
                                                                                                The Welsh Government
                                                                                            believes that the public must
                                                                                            be able to access clear, trusted
                                                                                            and verifiable information on
                                                                                            GMOs. It needs to set out all
                                                                                           potential benefits and risks and
                                                                                           consider key issues, such as
                                                                                           food security, climate change,
                                                                                          globalisation, and the role of
                                                                                          intellectual property rights in
                                                                                              We believe a broader and
                                                                                          more holistic evaluation of
                                                                                         GMOs should be undertaken
                                                                                         within the regulatory regime that
                                                                                         not only considers human
                                                                                         health and environmental issues,
                            preserve consumer confidence.                              but also looks at wider socio-
                              We are also determined to maintain             economic issues as part of the approval
                            Wales’ stunning natural environment.             process. We therefore strongly support the
                            Wales boasts 951 Sites of Special                developing European Commission
                            Scientific Interest, 13 designated Special       view that the EU regulatory regime on
                            Protection Areas, 44 Special Areas of            GMOs should be amended to allow Wales
                            Conservation, 3 National Parks and 5             and other regions in the EU to make
                            Areas of Outstanding Natural                     decisions on the cultivation of GM crops in
                            Beauty. These areas cover more than              their territory.

                                                                                                         Bite Issue 6 2011 19

Where do we go
from here?
Reader in Molecular Microbiology Peter Lund, Which?
Chief Policy Adviser Sue Davies, Food and Drink Federation
Director of Food Safety and Science Barbara Gallani, and
National Farmers Union Chief Science and Regulatory
Affairs Adviser Helen Ferrier, suggest their preferred
routes (see boxes). FSA Chief Scientist Andrew Wadge
tries to steer a course
                                                                                            Sue Davies
                                                                                            Chief Policy Adviser,

Andrew: Some themes have arisen from           A Which? survey in June 2011 found             approval, traceability and labelling, the
your initial statements: choice, the           that 62% of people are still concerned         complexity of the supply chain and
importance of safety in science, and the       about eating GM ingredients, 30% are           uptake of GM cultivation in other parts
fact that consumers remain unconvinced         not concerned and 11% do not know.             of the world still make this difficult to
of the benefits of this particular way of      Seventy per cent think it is important         achieve in practice.
producing food. You also made it clear that    that retailers have policies not allowing         With the potential use of the
there is a need to move from a polarised       GM ingredients in food and feed.               technology rising up the agenda in view
debate to a more mature debate. What do           This is in line with our previous           of concerns about food prices and food
we mean by a more mature debate, and           research, which has found that many            security, it is time for an honest and
how will it change things?                     people have not been convinced about           open debate about the role that GM
   Helen: Ten years ago or so, GM wasn’t       the benefits of GM foods and do not think      should play. Understanding and
such an established part of the supply         that enough is known about the long-term       addressing consumer attitudes has to
chain globally. We’re perhaps in a better      consequences, although they aren’t             be central to this and we need to move
position now to have a more rational           necessarily completely opposed to it.          away from a polarised debate between
debate that starts with making people             Concerns have been compounded               pro-GM researchers and anti-GM
aware that it’s here, so we’re not having      by the difficulties of enabling people to      lobbyists. The starting point for any
a discussion on ‘should we use this            have a meaningful choice. While many           discussion has to be the challenges
technology?’ We are already. That might        of the regulatory aspects in relation to       facing the supply chain and whether
be a good starting point.                      GM foods have steadily been                    GM, along with other options, could
   Sue: I think that would antagonise          addressed through requirements for             have a role in addressing them.
people. Whenever you’re talking about
food security one of the things that
frequently comes across is that we need
to have a debate about GM and we need         about what are the food security                    Sue: We need to have a genuine debate
to persuade people that GM is the way         challenges, what are the problems facing        about what kind of trade-offs people think
forward. I think we need to have a debate     the supply chain, what are the different        are acceptable in terms of the things that
                                              options. GM is one option. GM may have a        we’re facing. Which? has just done some
Weighing up the issues: from left,            role in tackling some issues, but there may     research showing that there is a huge
Peter Lund, Sue Davies, Andrew Wadge,
Barbara Gallani and Helen Ferrier             be other things that are a better option in     amount of concern about rising food
                                              other cases.                                    prices, for example. In relation to GM it’s
                                                 Helen: It’s not a theoretical thing that     also important to really ground the debate
                                              we’re discussing. There is a lot of GM feed     in UK-specific issues.
                                              being imported and people go on holiday             Barbara: The research that the FSA
                                              to places where GM produce is sold. If we       published in March on public attitudes to
                                              have to talk about GM, it’s reasonable to       emerging food technologies found that
                                              start with where we are now.                    novel food technologies are generally not
                                                 Peter: You want some means of arriving       a ‘top of mind’ concern for most people
                                              at a consensus where the outcome is not         (see this issue of Bite, pages 10 and 11).
                                              predetermined, and you want that to be as       What happens is that when people are
                                              open and as transparent as possible. I’m        presented with an issue that they rarely
                                              not terribly optimistic. GM has become a        think about, their reaction is emotional. We
                                              proxy for so many different things. It          want to make them aware of the facts that
                                              covers issues to do with consumer choice,       will allow them to make decisions that are
                                              people’s concern about corporate control        based on rationality rather than emotions.
                                              of the food chain, all the food security            Sue: The ‘GM Nation’ debate was some
                                              issues. Turning things around slightly to       time ago, but one of the findings from that
                                              address the issues and concerns facing          was that the more that people understood
                                              the UK and UK agriculture might be a            it, the more concerned they were. So it
                                              better way of going about it.                   isn’t necessarily the case that you give

                                                                                                                        Bite Issue 6 2011 21

There are two areas in which there
is potential for consumer benefit.
One is to make food cheaper. The
other is to make it better in some way.
     people more information and then               Sue: It would be good to have a review       Helen: Looking for specific consumer
they are reassured.                              of where we’ve got to. The FSA’s main        benefits misses the fact that a more
     Andrew: I’m interested in what your         focus is around food safety, but I think     efficient and productive farming system
thoughts are about what the FSA should           there needs to be a cross-cutting            that produces high quality food is of
be doing in relation to this, in terms of        approach that involves other Government      benefit to consumers. People want the
trying to help continue this debate, or          departments as well. There are lots of       best value from what they’re getting.
illuminate this debate.                          things that are starting to come together       Peter: There are two areas in which
    Barbara: Wouldn’t it be useful to identify   across Government now and we need to         there is potential for consumer benefit.
the obvious gaps in knowledge and                look at it in that broader context.          One is to make food cheaper. The other is
understanding in a very neutral way? In             Andrew: There is a really interesting     to make it better in some way. The kind of
fact, a lot of GM applications are really        point about the benefits. It seems that if   examples I’m familiar with are changing
about speeding up or understanding what          there are benefits they are much closer to   the balance of saturated and unsaturated
the outcome would be of certain                  the producer in the UK than to the           fats in oil. The factors that drive food
applications of breeding practices,              consumer. Is that right?                     prices are so far out of people’s control
traditional breeding practices.                                                               that the chances that you might be able to
                                                                                              see a change in a food price and link that
                                                                                              to GM is almost impossible.
                                                                                                 Barbara: If it is part of a toolbox of
                                                                                              solutions then we might not be able to
                                                                                              point the finger and say: ‘This price
                                                                                              decrease is down to GM.’ But it’s part
                                                                                              of a strategy that we need to look at in its
                                                                                                 Helen: In the US they are developing
                                                                                              high oleic and omega-3 soybeans. The
                                                                                              high oleic soybeans are apparently going
                                                                                              into the ground next year for seed
                                                                                              multiplication and the omega-3 beans in
                                                                                              2013, and they’ve already got FDA approval
                                                                                              for those products to go into a chocolate
                                                                                              bar or whatever.
                                                                                                 Sue: But how valuable is it to have some
                                                                                              of these very niche products that may be
                                                                                              targeted at people as being healthy for
                                                                                              them, when we’ve got a huge obesity
                                                                                              problem and most of us are just eating too
                                                                                              much fat, sugar and salt and not enough
                                                                                              fruit and vegetables?
                                                                                                 Andrew: My perspective on this is that
                                                                                              consumers are very capable of weighing up
                                                                                              risks and benefits for a whole range
                                                                                              of technologies. Microwave ovens weren’t
                                                                                              present in British kitchens in the 1970s.
                                                                                              Virtually every kitchen has one now. What’s

22 Bite Issue 6 2011
the reason? Because they’re seen as very          how they decide what goes on the shelf.            Peter: It’s because we’re talking about
helpful and convenient for producing food.            Peter: It may be the case that the          consumer acceptance of the technology. In
I’m really interested as to what benefits GM      retailers actually are waiting for the killer   30 years, when the market is full of GM
might bring to the consumer over the next         app. Non-browning apples is a very good         products, we might look back and say, the
couple of years.                                  example. I think, technically, it’s something   reason that these became accepted, was
    Sue: Until now, consumer concern has          that could be produced. If you had              the ‘iPod of food’.
been exacerbated by a lack of choice.             something like that, which could be                Sue: We have to remember that we’re
People say: ‘I want to make sure that I           brought into the market, then the general       where we are because of how badly things
know exactly what I’m eating and that I           feeling of distrust with GM would probably      went in the past. If GM had been
have a meaningful choice about whether or         begin to evaporate.                             introduced with nice, clearly-labelled
not I’m eating GM.’                                   Barbara: I think the debate has changed.    apples and people had been making an
    Helen: I think there is a difference in       It’s not about the silver bullet to solve a     assessment for themselves about whether
how we use the word ‘choice’. For example,        particular problem. It’s about using GM as      this was useful or not, we’d probably be in
farmers are being denied the choice of            part of a number of different strategies to     quite a different situation.
using a particular new variety of a particular    address food shortages in the future. So           Barbara: I believe the arguments for a
crop, because consumers are saying: ‘I            while acknowledging that we’re not              debate have changed because we now have
don’t want this particular variety of wheat to    describing GM as the silver bullet for a        a very strong regulatory framework and
be made into my [breakfast cereal], I want        solution, why do we need to find a very         planning for co-existence regulations [on GM
this other variety.’                              specific, very defined, very well-proven        and non-GM crops]. There are lots of things
    Peter: The other thing that’s tricky is       benefit?                                        that have changed in primary production.
that in some cases it’s a false choice
because there is no difference. The means
of production has no effect whatsoever on
the final product, they are genuinely the
                                                                                     Peter Lund
same thing.
                                                                                     Reader in Molecular Microbiology,
    Andrew: At the moment we’ve got GM
                                                                                     School of Biosciences, University
animal feed being widely used in the UK,
                                                                                     of Birmingham
but actually we don’t have GM food on sale
in our shops. What are the barriers? What’s
got to happen to get to the point where
consumers can exercise that choice as to
whether they want to purchase GM or not?
    Sue: I don’t think there is demand for         My involvement with this debate dates          metaphysical, that it can be extremely
GM foods at the moment. It would have              back to when I worked for an American          hard to see the wood for the trees.
been good to have a retail perspective [at         agri-biotech company, which did the               Many of the scientific concerns
the roundtable], but as far as I’m aware,          first deliberate release of a GM               about GM foods and their potential to
nothing has really changed with respect to         organism – a mutated bacterium,                harm our health or our environment
consumer demand.                                   intended to reduce crop frost damage.          have I believe been well addressed, and
    Andrew: I should say we did invite the         This experience moved my interest in           although no amount of testing can ever
retailers on several occasions to join us.         the potential and challenge of GM from         prove that a given food is completely
(See bottom page 25.)                              the abstract to the concrete.                  safe, I would have no scientific qualms
    Helen: There are a few products available          I have subsequently sat on the FSA         about either eating GM food or seeing
globally, so presumably they’ve got through        committee regulating GM in food, taken         GM crops planted in the UK.
whatever the retailers’ process is for             part in numerous public discussions,           Socio-political issues – from consumer
deciding whether something is going to             and was a founder member of the Food           choice to monopoly control of food
sell. But again, we need the retailers input.      Ethics Council, a charity that takes a         production – are another matter.
It’s quite a difficult thing to say: ‘We’re not    broadly anti – though carefully nuanced           What I hope for is a more mature
going to use this particular technique until       – stance on GM food.                           debate than we have had so far, with
people say they want it,’ when they don’t              In my experience, the GM debate            reasonable discussion not being
know what it is or how it would benefit            has always suffered from the fact that         drowned out either by ill-informed
them or otherwise. It might be a new               GM foods raise so many different               protests or professional lobbyists,
variety of apple that doesn’t go brown.            issues, some scientific, some                  but I am not optimistic that this
We need the retailers to explain how they          socio-political, and some frankly              can be achieved.
would label up such a GM product and

                                                                                                                             Bite Issue 6 2011 23

                                                   Sue: I agree that a lot of regulation is      Sue: If people feel reassured that it’s
                                              now in place, but I think discussion on         clear and that they will be able to make
                                              co-existence often ends up as being quite       a choice, then they’re likely to be more
                                              superficial – pretending that people, in        accepting of certain things. I think they
                                              effect, have a choice. If you’ve actually set   become suspicious when they feel that
                                              thresholds at quite a high level people don’t   they don’t have a choice or they’re given
                                              really have a meaningful choice. I think we     a false choice.
                                              haven’t really solved that issue.                  Barbara: If the principle is that GM is
                                                  Helen: There are thresholds throughout      acceptable as long as there is a choice
                                              the food supply chain on everything, and        between different products, then you still
It’s about using GM                           different countries have different              need – within safety and legislative
                                              thresholds. Japan has a non-GM threshold        considerations – to find a way to cope with
as part of a number of                        for soy, tofu and other products of 5%.         the practicalities. Hence the thresholds. I’m
different strategies to                       Ours is 0.9%. It was 1% when it first came      not going to get into whether 0.9% is
address food shortages                        in, but it was reduced to 0.9% because
                                              it sounded more reassuring. There was
                                                                                              correct or whether it should be 0.5%, but
                                                                                              the practicalities are a reality.
in the future.
                        ’                     absolutely no scientific basis for that.           Peter: There are safety issues that,
                                                                                              by and large, tend to be driven by
                                                                                              toxicological concerns. You keep the
                                                                                              proportion of mycotoxins in your wheat
                                                                                              below a certain level because you know
                                                                                              from proper toxicological studies that a
                                                                                              thousand times that level can do harm in
  Dr Helen Ferrier                                                                            X% of experiments on rats. That’s a more
  Chief Science and Regulatory                                                                or less rationally arrived at figure. People
  Affairs Adviser, NFU                                                                        will be terribly concerned about the safety
                                                                                              regulations affecting GM, but they’ll blithely
                                                                                              go and buy coffee and cream and peppers
                                                                                              – and other things that demonstrably will
                                                                                              damage them and that would never get
                                                                                              through contemporary safety regulations.
                                                                                              But if they regard aspects of GM as
   The NFU’s policy on GM can be              pesticides, fertilisers and fuel, for the       unacceptable that’s what has to be
   summed up in one word: choice.             benefit of environment, farmer and              addressed – even if it doesn’t make sense.
   Farmers must have access to the best       consumer? As one John Innes Centre                 Barbara: If you test consumers
   inputs and practices to grow their         scientist puts it, we now need to look          unprompted, and I’m referring to the FSA
   businesses. What is ‘best’ varies          more to biology than chemistry for              Public Attitudes Tracker, pesticides always
   hugely, and I wouldn’t advise our          solutions. This is where plant breeding,        come top of the list in contrast with, say,
   members what markets they should go        including tools like GM, is very valuable.      5% of consumers [spontaneously]
   for. But if seed companies don’t use all      Just as there is competition                 mentioning GM. You’re allowed to use
   the techniques available to research       between foods on the shelves, there             pesticides, you’ve got pesticide drift, you’ve
   and develop the best varieties for the     are highly competitive and global               got a communication strategy around it.
   UK because of the political climate or     markets for the raw materials British           Why should it be different for GM?
   regulatory regime, this country will be    farmers produce. Like the government,              Peter: It’s because it is a lightning rod
   trying to produce more and impact less     we see benefits in using GM for UK              for so many different things. It’s why the
   with one hand tied behind its back.        crops, and we already give our                  debate is so interesting and so
      To produce more and better while        livestock GM feed.                              complicated.
   reducing adverse environmental                There would be no production                    Sue: It’s a complex supply chain but it’s
   impact, we are asking a great deal from    without a market, but the regulation of         a marketplace and ultimately if consumers
   our land, our crops and our farmers,       how technologies are applied must be            aren’t going to accept a product then there
   especially in the context of climate       based on robust scientific analysis, not        is no future for it.
   change. How do we increase yields and      on assumptions about consumer views                Helen: But how can you talk about
   quality with less water, energy,           and perceptions.                                benefit if you can’t say: ‘This could do
                                                                                              that?’ And who is going to say that other

24 Bite Issue 6 2011
than the people who are developing the               Barbara Gallani
technology? More discussion and openness             Director of Food Safety
about the technologies used in food                  and Science, FDF
production is surely a good thing.
    Andrew: To try to sum up the discussion
at this roundtable, I would say there is
clearly a feeling that the debate on GM
should be framed around how we produce
food and the challenges of feeding a               FDF’s long-held position is that modern     sensationalist media coverage about
growing population.                                biotechnology, including GM, offers         “Frankenfoods”. It is important to
    Barbara referred to the ‘noise and the         enormous potential to improve the           provide the facts behind the
reality’ in terms of this debate. The reality is   quality and quantity of the food supply.    statements, for example that most GM
that we haven’t had the apple that doesn’t         Clearly, the impact of this technology      applications involve the improvement of
go brown in the bowl, which was mentioned          must be objectively assessed through        existing crops and products and that
by Helen – the ‘killer app’, as you put it,        scientific investigation. Robust controls   maintaining the current non-GM status
Peter. Provided that it’s safe and labelled        are necessary to protect the consumer       of the EU will come at a cost to society.
properly, there might well be a demand             and the environment; and consumer              We support the Foresight report’s
for that. But at the moment there does seem        choice and information are fundamental      conclusions that we need to produce
to be a real need to identify products that        to public acceptance. Our members are       more from less and with less impact,
will bring about a benefit for consumers           committed to providing a wide range of      and that recognition should be given to
before attitudes will shift.                       safe and nutritious foods to suit all       the role of GM as a tool in the
    I think that if we are going to continue       consumers, including those who, for         sustainability challenge. We are
this debate, there is clearly a need for the       their own reasons, reject the use of        concerned that the current situation in
FSA not to be talking solely about safety.         technologies such as GM in food             the EU is unsustainable and we believe
That’s our role, but the suggestion is that        production.                                 that EU governments and regulatory
we should be engaging with others so that             We believe that the time has come to     authorities should base their decisions
the safety risk assessment is seen as part         reopen a free and unbiased debate           regarding GM on safety and science,
of a wider debate providing information.           about GM. Consumers need objective          acknowledging and supporting the
    Sue raised the point about lessons for us      information from well-informed,             stringent assessment and approval
on how we handle new technology in food.           trustworthy sources, to balance             procedures already in place in Europe.
I think the lessons are that if we want to
avoid some of the problems that we have
faced with GM, we need a robust
framework. First, this must look
fundamentally at safety, because no one is
going to want to be putting products on the
market that are unsafe. Second, it would
need to address the very legitimate need
that everyone has for information about any
new technology.

  The British Retail Consortium, which
  represents retailers in the UK, declined the
  opportunity to take part in the roundtable.
  BRC Director of Food and Sustainability
  Andrew Opie said: ‘The reason there
  are no GM products available on UK
  supermarket shelves is that there is
  no consumer demand.’

An additional
tool in the box
How can GM crops benefit
the developing world?

                                          urrently, more than 1 billion
Stephen O’Brien                           people are hungry; another
Parliamentary Under-                      1 billion are undernourished.
Secretary of State at                     Food prices are at levels higher
the Department for                        than the 2008 price spike that
International                drove 200 million people back into poverty.
Development                     The challenge is to double food supply at
                             a time of climate change, when higher
                             temperatures and frequency of droughts
With a rising global         and floods present increasing threats to
population, the question     agriculture, when greenhouse gas emissions
                             must be sharply reduced and when
that is increasingly asked   resources are in increasingly short supply.
is: how will we feed a          This challenge can be met in a variety of
                             ways. Plant breeding will be crucial in
world of 9 billion people?   developing higher yielding, more nutritious
Stephen O’Brien believes     crop varieties that:
                             • are better able to resist drought, salinity,
that GM has an important       pests, and diseases
role to play                 • maximise the uptake of soil nutrients
                               and water
                             • are more efficient at using light
                             • are more resilient to storage and
                                Biotechnology, including genetic
                             modification (GM), has an important role         characteristics for developing countries
                             to play in developing new crops alongside        (for example, high iron rice); and plants that
                             more traditional technologies and innovative     can utilise nitrogen more efficiently and
                             approaches to agriculture such as integrated     that are more resistant to abiotic stress
                             pest management and conservation farming.        such as salinity, temperature, drought or
                                There is a strong and rapidly expanding       flood tolerance.
                             selection of GM products being developed            The development and use of new GM
                             for commercial production. These range           crops has the potential to close the ‘regional
                             from new types of pest and disease               yield gap’ – the difference between
                             resistance in plants, for example blight         agriculture productivity in Europe and other
                             resistance in potatoes, or wilt resistant        developed countries and the productivity
                             bananas; crops with improved nutritional         in sub-Saharan Africa.

26 Bite Issue 6 2011
                                                 Research is in the DNA

                                                 DFID-funded research involves:                   commercial production, once approved
                                                 • The analysis of genetic make-up of             by the Nigerian government. AATF is
                                                   important crops to identify the specific       also developing water-efficient maize for
                                                   genes linked to favourable traits, drought     Africa, with genetic source material
                                                   resistance or pest resistance, for             released to AATF by Monsanto.
                                                   example.                                     • The CGIAR HarvestPlus challenge
                                                 • Using this information to enhance the          programme is developing a range of
                                                   effectiveness and speed of conventional        new crop varieties that have been
                                                   plant breeding programmes. This is             biofortified to increase their nutritional
                                                   called marker-assisted breeding (MAB)          qualities. HarvestPlus relies largely on
                                                 • The development of GM crops, moving            conventional breeding technology
                                                   genes between species to produce               supported by MAB. Large scale field
                                                   plants with improved characteristics,          trials of vitamin A enriched sweet potato
                                                   for example, resistance to insects or          involving 200,000 households in
                                                   herbicide tolerance.                           Uganda and Mozambique have
                                                                                                  demonstrated the effectiveness of this
                                                 Specific examples of biotechnology               crop as a cost-effective way of
                                                 and GM research currently supported              addressing vitamin A deficiency in
                                                 by DFID:                                         children.
    While GM is not a panacea, it has an          • DFID is a significant donor to the          • A joint programme with the UK’s
important role to play in developing crops          Consultative Group for International          Biotechnology and Biological Sciences
that have improved nutritional                      Agriculture Research (CGIAR), the             Research Council (BBSRC) to improve
characteristics, are more productive, and are       leading international agriculture             the productivity and resilience of staple
resilient to pests, diseases and other shocks.      research organisation. One of CGIAR’s         crops important to the poor in
For poor farming households in developing           primary roles is to develop, for use in       developing countries. It will develop
countries, plant disease can lead to long           developing countries, new plant               tools and technologies to address the
term impoverishment and hunger.                     varieties that are more productive and        factors limiting crop productivity, for
    The Department for International                resistant to biotic and abiotic stress.       example insect pests, temperature,
Development (DFID) and other international          Improved varieties of the 10 main food        drought and salinity. It includes
development agencies are currently                  crops that were developed by CGIAR            research using advanced biotechnology.
investing in a range of advanced bio-science        are now grown on more than 200
applications aimed at developing countries.         million hectares in developing
While the great majority of DFID-supported          countries. Annual developing country
research uses conventional research                 benefits derived from CGIAR on
approaches, about 10% is invested in the            improved rice, wheat and maize alone
application of advanced biotechnology.              are estimated to be $10.8bn, $2.5bn
    Of course, the picture on consumer              and $0.7bn respectively.
demand and political acceptance on GM            • The African Agricultural Technology
is very mixed and dynamic across the               Foundation (AATF) is a not-for-profit
developed and developing world.                    foundation established to support the
    We believe that the assessment of the          development of new agriculture
use of GM, along with other technology,            products specifically for African farmers
must be based on scientific assessment             using existing intellectual property from
of the health and environmental risks.             the private sector. AATF is conducting
    But there is no doubt that, without the        large-scale field trials in Nigeria of an
application of GM technology, the challenge        insect-resistant variety of cowpea using
of sustainable intensifying of agriculture to      GM technology that will be licensed for
meet the demand for food, fibre and fuel
in the next 30 years will be enormous.

                                                                                                                           Bite Issue 6 2011 27

GM technology is not a ‘silver bullet’ but it offers                                             an area often considerably less than 10
                                                                                                 hectares per farmer.
significant agricultural, consumer, health and                                                      However, the use of the technology is
                                                                                                 limited in Europe. In the UK, no GM crops
societal benefits, says Mark Buckingham, deputy                                                  are commercially cultivated – several
chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council and                                              small scale trials are under way at public
                                                                                                 research institutes.
European spokesperson for Monsanto                                                                  Europe is therefore failing to maximise
                                                                                                 rural incomes and competitiveness and is
                                                                                                 using more land and resources than
                                                                                                 necessary to grow crops. Europe is also
                                                developed, which will allow crops to             eroding its industrial R&D base, which is
Mark Buckingham                                 withstand periods of low soil moisture.          essential to catch up with global
Deputy Chair,                                   Another area of intense research is              competitors and be responsive to climate
Agriculture and                                 nitrogen-use efficiency traits that can allow    change. It is missing out on being part of a
Biotechnology Council                           a crop to deliver the same yield with less       global market for agricultural biotechnology
                                                fertiliser, greatly reducing the carbon          that is valued at over £90 billion and
                                                footprint of food production.                    growing at 10-15% annually.
                                                    GM technology is not a ‘silver bullet’ but      With such tough challenges already

                                                it does offer significant agricultural,          facing the world’s poor and coming over the
                  hile the use of GM            consumer, health and societal benefits. A        horizon for all of us, farmers across the
                  technology in agriculture     2011 study by Brookes and Barfoot showed         globe will need access to a range of
                  still generates much debate   that GM crops can conserve arable land. If       solutions to help generate more food on
                  in Europe, there are many     GM crops had not been available to farmers       less land. Given the current economic
                  parts of the world already    in 2009, maintaining global production at        climate and the challenges of a growing
utilising the technology. From India to South   the same level would have required               population, isn’t it time Europe realised the
Africa, millions of farmers already value the   additional plantings of 3.8 million hectares     opportunities and benefits of scientific
positive impact GM technology can have on       of soybeans, 5.6 million hectares of corn        innovation in agriculture for our future
their operations.                               and 2.6 million hectares of cotton.              food and economic security?
    The world’s population is set to reach      Additionally, as demonstrated by a recent
9 billion by 2050. Significant increases in     Overseas Development Institute report,
crop yields are required or policy makers       investment in the agricultural sector can
will struggle to address the most vital need    also help tackle the issues of poverty with
of hunger and nutrition, particularly in        GDP growth in agriculture contributing
developing countries.                           twice as much to poverty reduction than
    From additional vitamins in key food        any other sector.
crops such as rice to disease-resistant             In 2010, GM technology was used by over
crops, GM technology is providing               15 million farmers on 148 million hectares of
additional tools for farmers to tackle some     land. Over 90% of those using the technology
of the challenges they face. Drought            are resource-poor farmers in developing
tolerance technology is also being              countries growing food, feed and materials on

Beneficial, but no
‘silver bullet’
28 Bite Issue 6 2011
                                                                                                                          OUT OF AFRIcA
                                                                                                                          DOLOR SI AMET

                                               Sowing seeds
                                               of destruction?
                                               The GM revolution threatens the richness of
                                               African agriculture, says Mariam Mayet

                                               This will usher in massive field trials across   to what are inherently social, political,
                     Mariam Mayet
                                               Africa, finally pushing open hitherto closed     historical and economic crises within
                     Director and founder
                                               doors to GM-based agriculture.                   African agriculture is drastically
                     of the African Centre
                                                  The money flowing into Africa is also         transforming African rural economies,
                     for Biosafety
                                               laying the groundwork for the                    social relationships, agrarian policies and,
                                               industrialisation of African agriculture and     generally, the rural development trajectory
                                               creation of markets for agribusiness. In         in Africa.

                                               turn, this is paving the way for the                Agricultural production in Africa will
              enetically modified seeds,       emergence of a new rural private sector          increasingly be dominated by transnational
              which were introduced            – agro-processors and exporters who              seed, GM, agro-chemical and agribusiness.
              commercially in South Africa     contract small farmers to produce crops          This will accelerate the destruction of
              in 1998, are now used            for them.                                        traditional agricultural systems and facilitate
              extensively in the country’s        With the exception of South Africa,           the shift towards an externally oriented,
agricultural systems.                          small-scale agriculture still predominates in    input-based agricultural system.
   In 2009/10, all of the maize seed sold      Africa. African farmers practise smallholder        Africa is heading towards genetic
in South Africa was GM, a sharp increase       diversified farming systems, which provide       contamination by GM crops, loss of
from 2006/07, when 36% of maize seed           most of the food consumed, as well as a          agricultural genetic diversity and the
sales were for GM varieties. Farmers using     substantial share of cash crops.                 degradation and pollution of soils and water.
GM seed must sign away the right to save          At least 17 distinct farming systems exist       The gene revolution is a threat to the
or exchange seed. It is for this reason that   in Africa. Crop diversity is at the centre of    richness of African traditional agriculture. It
by 2010/11, 77% of maize grown in South        such systems, and farmers typically cultivate    stands in sharp contrast to the many
Africa was GM.                                 10 or more crops in diverse mixtures.            successful African alternatives in organic
   Farmers using GM seeds must also pay           Saved seed is a critically important          agriculture, sustainable agriculture,
a technology fee to the manufacturer. The      resource that the poorest depend on to           agro-forestry, pastoralism, integrated pest
change from single trait GM technology,        carry them from one year to the next.            management, farmer-led plant breeding,
common in 1998, to the production of              The imposition of technological solutions     sustainable watershed management and
seeds with ‘stacked’ traits, means that                                                         many other agro-ecological approaches.
farmers are having to continuously
upgrade seed from one year to the next.
   Millions of dollars from philanthropic                                                       The African Centre for Biosafety
organisations, such as the Bill and Melinda                                                     is a non-profit organisation dedicated
Gates and Howard G Buffet foundations,                                                          to protecting Africa's biodiversity,
are being spent on GM drought-tolerance                                                         traditional knowledge, food
research and development in Africa. GM                                                          production systems, culture and
drought tolerance is being offered as a                                                         diversity, from the threats posed by
panacea in the alleviation of poverty and                                                       genetic engineering and biopiracy
hunger, and in combating climate change.

                                                                                                                            Bite Issue 6 2011 29

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