Genetic modification after Brexit is now being discussed and I’ve just listened to Princess Anne’s opinions on Farming Today. What she said wasn’t very controversial despite all the hyping by the BBC yesterday. The benefits of genetic modification were all hypothetical ones in the future rather than ones that are available now and being held back from British farmers.
Professor Anne Glover and Tony Juniper had a very sensible discussion about these matters on the Today programme yesterday (click here about 1hr 50min into programme). We might all be rather better off listening to the discussion between two experts on the subject than the views of a former amateur jockey and Olympian with no formal scientific training (or her brother). Yesterday’s discussion between Juniper and Glover suggested that there might be some future advantages to us all from GM crops but only from some GM crops and we haven’t seen very many of those benefits so far. The claimed benefits of GM crops have so far been much greater than their realised benefits (there’s always a large pile of distant jam in this topic) and we should be a bit sceptical of the claims of the industry that benefits most from their production.
What wasn’t said, but is also true, is that we should also be a bit sceptical of the claims of environmental disaster made by some about the harm of GM crops.
A long time ago I was part of a scientific review process, chaired by the then Government Chief Scientist, Prof David King, which looked at these issues and produced two large reports (Report 1, Report 2) one on either side of the completion of the farm scale evaluations of GM crops – a big study which showed that the environmental damage that the RSPB and others had claimed would result from using pesticide-resistant GM crops was indeed true. The media like to look at GM discussions as being between cutting-edge science to help the world and a bunch of luddite environmentalists who are standing in the way of progress. There has been an element of that in the debate. But, because I was there, and the RSPB played a significant role in these matters, I remember the GM debate as being a victory for environmentalists who knew their stuff, correctly predicted the impacts of pesticide-tolerant GM crops on farmland ecology and were vindicated by a massive field experiment despite the denial and claims of the rather untrustworthy industry.
The massive debate over pesticide-tolerant GM crops around 20 years ago was a scientific victory for the environmentalists – let’s remember that. To believe the biotechnology company claims would have been as foolish as to believe the claims of grouse moor managers about the environmental impacts of their industry. And if there had been an e-petition process back then there would have been a massive signature count against pesticide-tolerant GM crops from the public and yet, I’m sure, a bunch of Conservative MPs would have packed Westminster Hall to support the industry with their speeches.
My personal opinion hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. We probably should embrace some GM crops, but as with anything else and anyone else we are thinking of embracing, we should have a good look at it first.
PS I thought Anna Hill was very amusing in asking Princess Anne about family businesses where the senior members don’t hand over the business to their children until the last possible moment.