Should we become a GM Nation? is the title of a new Church of Scotland report just released for debate at the General Assembly on 18 May. It is written by the Kirk’s own Society, Religion and Technology Project (SRT), which has pioneered the examination of ethical and social issues of GM since 1993 in its seminal study Engineering Genesis. The new report argues that although GM is not wrong in itself, the Government should not have given the go-ahead last month for herbicide tolerant GM maize to be grown commercially in the UK. “Given the current strength of public opinion revealed in last summer’s official public consultation, and the continuing uncertainties about environmental impacts, these are the wrong type of GM crops at the wrong time,” says the SRT Project Director, Dr Donald Bruce.
The report re-evaluates GM food and crops in the light of the findings from the UK farm scale crop trials, other scientific reports and the 2003 public consultations. It finds “no convincing theological reason to say it is an intrinsically wrong act to transfer genes into a crop from a different species”, but says neither should we treat God’s creation lightly. The report endorses the Kirk’s earlier 1999 cautious view that if GM crops were used they should focus on applications with obvious benefit to people or the environment, and should be labelled. Innovation should seek to establish a better balance of environmental care over intensive production.
The current GM crops considered by the Government have not met these criteria. Oil seed rape, forage maize and sugar beet made resistant to weed killers do not offer tangible benefits to consumers, and two of these have shown loss of farmland biodiversity. Even the apparent wildlife improvements from using GM maize are controversial, because they were compared with a very aggressive herbicide which is in the process of being withdrawn.
The report analyses last summer’s GM Nation debate, in which SRT played an active role, working with the New Economics Foundation to produce the DEMOCS card game, to encourage more of the non-aligned general public to take part. It criticises the main consultation because it was rushed through in a short summer period before the key studies were published. But the results are quite clear. The report concludes: “Given the clear public opposition from the GM Nation debate, the Government has no credible mandate to go ahead with the commercial production of the present round of herbicide tolerant GM crops in the UK.”
The biotechnology industry made a serious error of judgement in focusing on large scale production traits which have no benefit to citizens and are environmentally sensitive. “We should not, however, close the door on future GM crop developments which might offer clearer advantages to consumers or which were targeted to particular UK environmental conditions.” Research should continue into possibilities of health or nutritional benefits and non-food uses in the UK, and to help poorer countries develop their own appropriate applications of biotechnology. “Some of the ends may indeed be achievable in other ways, but we should not exclude GM just because it is GM. GM might help in some cases, but it is not a panacea to feed the world.”