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Grant McDermott

Data. Economics. Environment.

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Scottish microbiologist Anne Glover is the recently appointed chief science adviser to the EU. The below excerpt concerning GMO is taken from an interview that she gave last month.

She makes three major points: (1) There is a fundamental need for a profit-driven agri-business, (2) Resistance to GMO is driven by emotion rather than any kind of scientific evidence, and (3) Anti-GMO lobby groups are partially to blame for the monopoly power that they so vehemently claim to oppose.
In terms of food security and safety \(-\) where do you stand on genetically modified products and what do you think of the EU’s rather dismissive stance to GM to date?  

“In my own area of science, molecular biology, I have used the GM technology for most of my research career and very helpful it has been in generating understanding about how biological and environmental systems work. So I know the power of the technology and the regulations we adopt in order to use it are very sensible and appropriate. I can also see that healthcare and our understanding of diseases has been revolutionised. There has been an unparalleled acceleration of our knowledge generation through the use of GM, which is a fantastic thing. 

“But people in Europe are anxious about the use of GM crops or animals and I have a concern about that because I don’t see the evidence base suggesting that there is substantial risk associated with it. Indeed, you could look at North America where they have been doing an experiment on our behalf for the last 15 years by growing and eating GM crops – and I don’t see over that period of time what negative impact it has had. There is a huge body of evidence, rightly so, looking at the risk of GM. People will ask me: ‘Is there no risk in eating GM crops?’ Well, of course, I would never say that as I am a scientist. What I would say is that whatever you eat for dinner this evening, there is a risk in eating that. There is risk associated with conventional agriculture, organic agriculture, any form of agriculture. 

“Agriculture has a big impact on our environment. The act of fertilising fields reduces the microbial diversity in the soil, but we don’t think that it has any long-term effects. We think it is something we need to do. There are implications for climate change and water spoilage issues so we need to do that with care. So around GM, let us examine the evidence. It doesn’t support the restricted activity in this area that we see. 

People may say that it is just big business that is making money out of this, but I can’t help thinking that is the job of big business. It is a capitalist system we work in – energy companies make money, transport companies make money. So do agricultural companies. I wish there was a better debate around GM, based on evidence and not emotion. And I wish we could look at risk versus reward. Some farmers say that if we introduce these particular types of GM seeds, then we are tied in to using particular chemicals to manage our crops. They don’t like that because they feel it is a monopoly to a particular company and they are uncomfortable about that.” 

But isn’t that part of the problem, these allegations that a small number of firms have a monopoly in the GM market? 

Possibly, the reason that [monopoly power] has happened is because of all the restrictions on GM. If I was running a small seed company, it is not an area I would be getting into because I couldn’t afford to do it. The lobbyists and pressure groups have almost been responsible for it by causing this withdrawal from evidence and this acceptance of the emotional argument. It really is not fair to use terms such as ‘Frankenstein foods’. We should be a bit more cautious in Europe here. By turning our backs on the evidence, there is a question over whether we are still going to be as competitive. We need to seriously look at GM crops when we tackle to the global problem of climate change and being able to feed the population of the world. It links into food security as well and we do need to think about that.”