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Government's new top scientific advisor welcomes GM

By Andrew Williams , 22-Apr-2013
Last updated on 23-Apr-2013 at 11:36 GMT

The government’s new chief scientific advisor, Sir Mark Walport, has stirred up the genetic modification (GM) debate by setting out his pro-GM view on the food supply chain.

A month into his tenure, Walport highlighted “significant potential for GM technology” and hinted the “UK [was] good at basic GM science but restricted in application”.

Walport said: “Conventional crop breeding has changed plants dramatically already but has limitations.” He added that “The job of a scientific adviser is to set out the scientific case and that scientific case is becoming stronger and stronger,” signalling a sympathetic ear for organisations and businesses calling for a relaxation of the government’s position on GM.

Among those was the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), which welcomed the comments. “FDF’s long-held position is that modern biotechnology, including GM, offers great potential to improve the quality and quantity of the food supply,” said Barbara Gallani, the FDF’s director of regulatory, science and health.

“Clearly, the impact of this technology must be objectively assessed through scientific investigation. Robust controls are necessary to protect the consumer and the environment; and consumer choice and information are fundamental to public acceptance,” said Gallani.

GM in food production

“Our members are committed to providing a wide range of safe and nutritious foods to suit all consumers, including those who, for their own reasons, reject the use of technologies such as GM in food production.”

Walport’s pro GM views were also well received by the food research fraternity. The Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) believed GM promised  improved food security, increased reliability of yield  and financial returns from crop production.

Dr Julian Little, ABC chair, said: “With another study on the impact of GM crops being published by the University of Reading this week, the mountain of evidence of benefits from the technology gained by farmers in the real world continues to grow.” He pointed to what he called a growing “scientific consensus around the safety and potential of GM technology”.

Nevertheless, he conceded that reservations over the efficacy of GM needed to be overcome. “It is hugely important that we change public perceptions surrounding GM crops, to ensure that the technology is more widely accepted, enabling it to effectively address food security concerns,” said Dr Little.

But Richard Werran, chief executive of Cert ID Europe, argued that supermarkets rolling back on ‘GM-free’ claims on packs could confuse consumers. The company, which claims to be “GM-neutral”, offers certification for farmers and poultry suppliers looking to communicate that their animals have been reared on non-GM feed.

‘If the consumer doesn’t want it’

“Clearly it [Walport’s comments] resonate with the government’s entrenched policy in support of GM, and all the funded research via the Roslin institute on GM animals,” he said. “But it doesn’t really matter what the chief scientific officer thinks as long as the consumer remains sceptical about GM. We’re all here to serve the consumer and if the consumer doesn’t want it, or wants it labelled accordingly, that has to be our guiding compass. Horse meat destroyed consumer trust in retailers and that relationship between the retailer and consumer has been greatly eroded.”

Meanwhile, the Soil Association blasted the pro-GM stance. “The call to relax the rules on GM crops from Sir Mark Walport comes as no surprise,” said Peter Melchett, head of policy for the Soil Association. “A strong belief in GM has become a basic qualification for the chief scientist job in recent years. The problem for successive pro-GM UK governments is that consumers and the market, not politicians, have decided what actually happens. 

“A recent survey shows more than 80% of customers are either unsure or negative in their attitude to the use of GM technology in food – and that will determine the future of GM food – not the chief scientist’s opinion.

“Currently most UK supermarkets are choosing to hide their use of GM animal feed by not labelling products. In the rest of Europe there are strong moves to non-GM animal feed, and these changes are bound to come to the UK soon – Waitrose has already decided to keep their eggs and chicken non-GM.”

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