Should we become a GM Nation?
Society, Religion and Technology Project Report to 2004 General Assembly
SRT’s Second Report on GM Crops and Food
Genetically modified crops and food remain one of the most controversial issues of recent times. In 1993, long before ‘GM’ became a public issue, SRT brought together a working group of experts in GM research, ethics, sociology, agriculture, risk and animal welfare, in a far-reaching five year study on the ethics of genetic engineering in crops and animals. Our resulting book Engineering Genesis proved very timely in 1998, and was widely acclaimed for its informed and balanced insights by both sides of a now rapidly polarising public debate. Based on these findings, the SRT Project presented a detailed report to the 1999 General Assembly, taking an intermediate position. The Assembly did not oppose the use of GM food and crops as such and saw some potential benefits. But it was highly critical of the behaviour of multi-national companies in thrusting GM imports into Europe without labelling or segregation, of the commercially driven priorities of the technology, of spurious claims to “feed the world”, and of the dismissal of emerging public concerns by the UK Government and EU. SRT has briefly updated successive Assemblies on progress with several aspects of these issues, but 2003 saw a series of important reports and developments. These covered the scientific evaluation of health and environmental risks, the farm scale trials on biodiversity impact, an economic appraisal, EU labelling laws, and a national public debate. This leads us to present a second report and recommendations to this Assembly.
A Brief History of GM
In the mid-1990’s, what we now know as “GM” was heralded by Government, scientists and industry as the next step in agriculture. Instead of being limited by classical crop breeding to traits which exist within a given plant species, GM gave the potential to bring a genetic trait from any organism in the living world into the crop. This was presented as offering great potential for improvements both in the way food crops are grown and in the foods themselves. GM crops are now grown on a very large scale in several countries, especially North America, China and Argentina. The first true GM foods came on sale in Britain in 1996, but were actually grown abroad. At about this time the European Commission passed a few GM crops for growing in EU countries. The UK government planned to begin commercial growing of GM crops in the UK. This was stalled in 1999, when public opposition led supermarkets to withdraw GM produce from their shelves, and also by the need to address fresh questions about certain environmental impacts. This led to a de facto unofficial moratorium on growing GM crops in the UK. The various 2003 developments mark the end of this period. At the same time there has been a major revision of the EC legislation on GM crop releases to the environment and on GM foods, including a new requirement to label all foods originally derived from GM sources, instead of only requiring labeling for food which still contains modified genes. The latter was an important change, called for by the 1999 General Assembly. With all these data, laws and results, the UK is now under pressure from both the EC and the USA to allow GM crops to be grown commercially in the UK. The Government has promised to decide in early 2004.
Public Attitudes to GM
Public attitudes have changed markedly over GM. The first true GM product in the UK was a tomato paste prepared from tomatoes which were genetically modified to be less squashy. This allowed them to be picked later and so have more flavour. At this point, public awareness about GM was fairly limited. While there was no great opposition, the UK company Zeneca took some care to market the paste with sensitivity to potential concerns. The tins were clearly labelled as being derived from genetically modified tomatoes, and leaflets were available to promote the value of the new technology. GM was indeed seen as a selling point. According to the taste panels, it tasted better. Because the tomatoes were less squashy, less water had to be removed in processing them into paste, and so it was slightly cheaper. It sold quite well in supermarkets for several years.
The change of mood was prompted by a number of factors, largely arising from the importing of unsegregated and unlabelled GM soya oil and maize flour from the USA. In contrast to the tomato paste, consumers saw no tangible benefit from the products. The modifications were primarily to make production more efficient, by reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides used, with less tillage of the soil. Secondly, there was now a growing public unease about a technology which involved manipulating genes and food. Was enough known about any potential risks to human health or the environment? Thirdly, the producers assumed it was unnecessary to separate or label foods derived from these GM crops, and regulators agreed, if there was no measurable difference from the equivalent non-GM foodstuffs. The GM oil and flour were used to make a wide variety of common processed foods such as biscuits and sauces. Without labelling, people could not avoid them if they wanted to. The result was that people had no idea whether or not they were eating novel foods, which might prove to carry new risks, and for which there was no immediate benefit. In 1997-8, SRT warned that this was a recipe for a public revolt against GM foods, and this duly came in early 1999. Since then supermarkets have generally tried to source their own brand products from non-GM crops, but they have limited control over foreign brands. It is probably true to say that during this period most people in Britain will have eaten some foodstuffs derived from GM crops grown abroad.
The ‘GM Nation’ Public Consultation
A major public consultation called GM Nation was held over six weeks in summer 2003. The official consultation literature presented the issues primarily in terms of for and against, reflecting the terms in which campaign groups on either side tend to see the issues. SRT’s experience with listening to members of the public is that this picture is unhelpful because most people construct complex issues in much more subtle ways. SRT therefore worked with the New Economics Foundation to produce a card game called Democs, to help groups of people to discuss GM issues themselves without needing experts. SRT organised a public meeting in Edinburgh with the Centre of Human Ecology, and also helped the Scottish Civic Forum to run focus groups with low income families and students in another survey for the Food Standards Agency.
The GM Nation consultation was underfunded and did not go on for long enough. Many people never knew it was happening. Although a large number of people filled in the official questionnaires and sent their views to the Government, the official evaluation report concluded that the questionnaires were something of a ‘self-selecting’ group reflecting the views of people already concerned about GM issues enough to attend meetings. Some significant differences were found when focus groups were held with a more random sample of the public. The overall conclusion was that it is quite clear that most people do not support commercialisation of the current GM crops. While many people are deeply against GM, the view of the broader public seems to be sceptical rather than completely opposed. Many might consider more beneficial future applications of GM, but provided much more is found out about environmental and health risks. There is general deep suspicion of commercial influence and state sponsorship of GM, and a call for independent and reliable information - a role which SRT is helping to fufill in its work with Democs and the Biotechnology Research Council. The message from the general public to the Government is clear: do not start the commercial growing of the current generation of herbicide tolerant GM crops.
The Impact of GM on Biodiversity – the Farm Scale Trials
Meanwhile, the Government sponsored the Farm Scale Trials, the largest scale environmental trials of GM crops ever carried out. Loss of biodiversity in farmland is a long-standing trend arising from intensive agricultural methods. Would GM make it better or worse? The trials tested the impact on weed populations, and the wildlife that depends on weeds for food, using crops which had been modified genetically to be tolerant to a particular herbicide. The results showed that for two crops the use of herbicide tolerant oil seed rape and sugar beet would mean some long term reduction in weeds, butterflies and birds, compared with herbicide use on a conventional non-GM crop. On the other hand a GM maize led to increased biodiversity, albeit compared to a very aggressive conventional herbicide. The impact would vary greatly with types of crop and farming practices, but the Government’s regulatory committee has recommended that GM herbicide tolerant maize could be grown under tightly controlled conditions but not the equivalent GM oil seed or sugar beet.
It is important to note that these changes in biodiversity are caused by how the herbicide is used, not because the crops were GM, as such. Similar effects would have been expected if the herbicide tolerance had been bred into the crops by conventional selective breeding, instead of GM methods. These tests apply to just one type of genetic modification. They cannot be generalised to all GM crops or all types of modification. They do show that the environmental effects of using GM crops are complex. In the best situations, there could environmental advantages compared with conventional crops, but in the wrong circumstances there might be detrimental effects. A case-by-case approach is needed. The trials underline the wisdom of the 1999 Assembly’s cautious attitude: “It also seems appropriate at present to concentrate on applications that are restricted in scale, and which confer strong human or ecological benefits, and to set up long term monitoring to see that there are no serious unintended effects over extended periods of time.”
Gene Flow and Liability
Another major concern since 1999 has been whether the relevant genes in GM crops could spread to non-GM plants. Small amounts of natural “gene flow” occur in nature from some ordinary crop plants to their wild varieties or very close relatives, but not to completely unrelated species. GM genes could not transfer to unrelated species like many common weeds, or totally different crops. So GM oil seed rape could not cause a potato to become GM, because the two plants cannot mate. But some transfer from GM crops to non-GM varieties of the same species is to be expected. Opinions vary about the ecological significance of this. On balance, it is unlikely to cause a major ecological disaster in the UK, but much care would be needed to protect farmers who wish to market their crops as non-GM and those who wish to avoid buying GM-derived produce. The 2003 Assembly called for policies which would not make the growing of genetically modified crops and organic crops mutually exclusive. This means a compromise. Standards set for permissible levels of GM presence in non-GM food should be practicable rather than idealistic, in return for binding restraints on would-be GM growers as to how, where and when the GM crops may be grown.
Winners and Losers Internationally
Our local UK issue is set in a global context of big international interests. The USA is taking the EU to the World Trade Organisation’s arbitrators to try to force the EU to lift its ban on imports of North American GM crops. The US is viewing GM as merely a trade issue, for its own commercial interests. It denies outright a basic matter of democracy. The European ban resulted from public pressure against an earlier EC policy to import US GM crops. Since UK consumers evidently do not want these crops either grown or imported into the UK, the Government must not bow to US pressure against the wishes of its own people.
The 1999 Assembly argued not to foreclose benefits which might come to developing countries from GM technology, if these could be handled justly. That is a very big ‘if’. The ambitions of multi-national companies to use GM to control world markets pose serious threats, not least to proper uses of GM technology. Most applications of GM are aimed at western supermarket shelves, not the world’s poor. In 2002, we pointed out the injustice of the attempted import of US food aid of GM maize to Zambia, as an example of crass insensitivity to local concerns. On the other hand a black farmer in South Africa told us that sowing GM cotton has over five years increased his yields on his small farm so that he can now afford to send his children to school. Again, it’s a mixed picture. If scientists in developing countries believe they can develop indigenous applications for their own crops and conditions, in ways that do not disadvantage their own farmers, we should not forbid them the chance. GM might help in some cases, but it is not a panacea to feed the world.
Assessing the Results in the light of the 1999 Assembly Position
The trials and the scientific and economic reports support the view of the 1999 Assembly, that GM is not a simple ‘yes or no’ issue, but must be taken case-by-case, weighing up many different factors. In its original study, SRT has found no convincing theological reason to say it is an intrinsically wrong act to transfer genes into a crop from a different species. Some people ask if it is wise to transfer across more remote species, but we do not support the argument from some within the organic movement that GM is fundamentally wrong because it goes beyond nature. In Christian ethics, what is natural is an ambiguous moral guide. Humans have also intervened fundamentally in countless ways since our primitive ancestors walked the earth - including some dramatically ‘unnatural’ uses of selective breeding. We do not draw a fixed line at GM, just because it is GM.
On the other hand, the way God through evolution has ordered the creation is not to be treated lightly. The Farm Scale Trials show that environmental effects may be significant. They also raise an important underlying contextual question. What is the right balance in agriculture between increasing production and maintaining biodiversity? The trials report concludes that maximising production has perhaps been pushed too far and suggests redressing the balance somewhat. In a context of reduced biodiversity in general, SRT is sympathetic to this view. We would continue to advocate precaution about risks in this area and the need for wisdom about when to apply GM technology and when not to. Since none of our present ways of growing food are risk free, it is not a case of “if in doubt don’t”, however. While no significant health problems have emerged, spotting any long term effects in the wider population of millions who have eaten GM food is like looking for a needle in a haystack. At present, provided tests and regulations are adhered to properly, GM seems no more likely, in itself, to be a cause of major health problems than any other way of growing food. Given the lack of public confidence, more specific research on potential health risks of GM is clearly needed, but conventional practices may also need re-examining, in the light of deeper questions about health, diet and how we should grow our food in future. These, however, lie beyond the scope of this short report.
Our 1999 report urged that if GM crops were used they should focus on applications with obvious benefit to people or the environment, and should be labelled. The main GM crops being now being considered by the UK Government may not meet these criteria. Oil seed rape, forage maize and sugar beet made resistant to weed killers do not offer tangible benefits to consumers. A case might be made if, for some farmers, GM would make the difference between being able to compete in global markets or going out of business. But in a climate of consumer scepticism of GM foods, the official economic report concludes that costs savings to farmers could be outweighed by the lack of a market in the case of food crops. Only GM crops grown for animal feed or export may be economically attractive to growers, and the environmental case argues against growing some of these examples.
SRT’s conclusion is that 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. 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. A number of potential UK options include improved nutritional content or health benefits, perhaps reduced allergenicity or longer shelf life. Non-food applications of GM plants for medicine or renewable materials, oils and fuels still hold promise. The UK should also continue to support valuable genetic research that might be of value for developing countries, either by GM, conventional or organic methods. Some of the ends may indeed be achievable in other ways, but we should not exclude GM just because it is GM.
Motions Passed by the General Assembly
1. Receive the report.
2. Urge HM Government not to allow the growing of herbicide tolerant GM oil seed rape, sugar beet or maize in the UK at this time, and to focus GM research on products with immediate benefits to consumers or to developing countries.
3. Urge HM Government to comply speedily with the EC Directive requiring the labelling of foods of GM origin.