Debating GM crops

I have history on the question of the use of GM crops in agriculture. I spent the 1990s working in research that was directly or indirectly involved with the use of GM in agriculture, including working with a company to investigate the commercial potential of some of my research. Then in the early 2000s I worked for Defra providing science advice on GM crops to ministers, and operating the regulatory regime for the release of GMOs.

So I have been watching with interest the recent moves by Government to reopen discussions about GM crops, and the decision of Monsanto this week to pull out of GM crops in Europe. It is striking how little the debate has moved on in the last fifteen years. The types of crops were are talking about haven’t changed, there are still the same polarized positions, each citing much the same evidence (or lack of evidence) and arguments. I think this illustrates how dangerous polarization of debates can be – there seems little scope to bring the two sides together in this conflict about values and power.

Although the landscape hasn’t changed very much over this period my own view has. I started out having a lot in common with the position set out by Owen Paterson recently. I believed the technology was safe, that not to deploy it was a huge risk for food security, and that the challenge was to inform and convince the public. Once the public understood, I thought, they would accept this essential technology.

I now believe I was wrong on many counts. I still believe the evidence tells us that genetic modification technology isn’t generically hazardous, but I think there is a case that changes to agricultural practices of all types (including those facilitated by other forms of crop improvement) can have adverse environmental impacts[pdf]. We need to understand those and balance them against the potential benefits. Having looked at the evidence, I now believe the food security case for GM crops in general is weak. Crop performance and yield is only one of the challenges that need to be addressed, and anyway there are many alternative approaches to crop improvement, as Andy Stirling has clearly explained. There may be specific challenges in food security where GM crops will be important, in certain crops or to respond quickly to new disease issues, but I think it is wrong to say that our future food security depends on the deployment of GM technology.

The area that I have had the biggest shift in my views is around public dialogue. There is clear evidence that the approach I previously favoured – inform and convince – doesn’t work. But even if it did, I think there is an ethical imperative to engage people in a debate about important technologies like GM crops. The debate needs to recognise that the issues are much broader than a narrow focus on risk, and make space for people to discuss the technological trajectories that they want, and the type of society that they want to live in. Most importantly, all the options need to be kept open during the debate. That includes the possibility that the UK might decide, as far as is possible in a freely trading world, to avoid GM technology. Personally, I can’t see that option being on the table, but if it isn’t there is not really much to talk about.