The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has nailed his colours to the mast on the issue of GM crops, calling for the EU’s stringent regulatory system to be ‘turned around’ to streamline the planting of new genetically engineered crops in member states.
In evidence given to the Government’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Beddington said that he believed the current stringent European approval process for new forms of crops was ‘not working at all well’, and posed ‘a regulatory burden’ to small biotechnology companies hoping to sell their products to EU countries.
Although he acknowledged consumer concern over the technology, Beddington insisted that Europe and the UK are ‘way behind’ the rest of the world on the issue. He argued that the absence of any legal proceedings in the US on the grounds of health impacts caused by GM crops indicated that such problems were not occurring. ‘It doesn’t mean to say they don’t exist,’ he qualified, ‘but GM has been eaten widely throughout the world and we’ve not had indications of major problems.’
Beddington’s enthusiasm for GM still appears more tempered than that of his predecessor, Sir David King, who was known to be an evangelist for the technology.
‘I would say, GM is not the only answer,’ Beddington told the Committee. ‘Proponents of GM say that it is the only answer; I believe they are incorrect, but it may well be a part of an answer to solve a number of very difficult problems that we can’t solve by genomic-related marker breeding or conventional breeding.’
When asked for his opinion on the recent landmark EU ruling on pesticides, which could see a number of the most harmful agricultural chemicals removed from sale, Beddington was less equivocal. He described the legislation as ‘very strange’, and decried the methodology behind it as ‘unscientific and inadequate’:
‘Just banning the use, or severely reducing the use, of something just on the basis that it is a hazard, rather than doing a proper risk assessment, seems to me to abrogate scientific responsibility, and certainly is not compatible with an evidence-based policy,’ he said.
Beddington added that he would continue to lobby the European Parliament on the issue – an action that is likely to result in a greatly watered-down list of banned substances when the final legislation appears.
His tirade against acting to ban certain pesticides merely because they are hazardous chemicals came on the same day that the Co-operative Group – the UK’s largest farmer – announced that it would suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on its farms because of their suspected role in UK honeybee population decline.
‘We believe that the recent losses in bee populations need definitive action, and as a result are temporarily prohibiting the eight neonicotinoids pesticides until we have evidence that refutes their involvement in the decline,’ said Simon Press, the Co-op’s senior technical manager, at the launch of the group’s 10point plan to reverse the decline in honeybee numbers.