In a recent Ecologist interview, the scientist leading the controversial trials of genetically modified (GM) potatoes in the UK, Professor Jonathan Jones, outlined his vision for the future of GM crops, proposing economic and policy changes that appear to be based on some sweeping assumptions and his own perceptions of the supposed benefits of these crops. In my view, Prof. Jones’ vision is deeply flawed in relation to its potential scientific, ecological and public policy impacts.
Professor Jones states that in the future, he expects about 90 per cent of several important staple crops, including maize and soy, to be genetically modified, and recommends that public sector funding should be used to help biotech companies further develop these, and other GM crop varieties. In addition, he suggests that the costs of regulation to the GM industry be reduced to zero, and that the products themselves be labeled to promote their (supposed) benefits.
Professor Jones’ ambitions for the future of GM would undoubtedly prove highly lucrative for Mendel Biotechnology - which he co-founded and is a science advisory board member - which carries out contract research for the biotechnology giants Monsanto and Bayer. More troubling are the implications of Prof. Jones’ suggestions for the conduct of robust science and the use of scientific information in informing policy and the effective regulation of GM crops.
Checks and balances
Complaints about burdensome regulation are predictable when they come from a biotech industry that sees its primary responsibilities as generating profit for its shareholders. Nonetheless, the importance of scientific tests informing and underpinning the checks and balances aimed at protecting both the public and the natural environment must not be underestimated. As a matter of principle, testing should be conducted by publicly accountable agencies, rather than the biotech industry itself. Moreover, the costs involved in ensuring protection of the environment should rest squarely on the companies that seek to profit from GM technology.
Like many people, I believe that the checks and balances for the development of GM crops need to be strengthened rather than weakened. Many of the companies involved in biotech have their roots in the chemical industry. History has taught us that the self-regulation by the chemical sector has rarely been effective. If one thing has become clear it is that a regulatory framework needs to be prescriptive and enshrined in law rather than being simply voluntary. Accordingly, one good way forward would be to place the precautionary principle solidly at the centre of policy development and the overall regulatory process. Professor Jones himself unintentionally highlights the need to approach GM regulation in this way by describing the emergence of herbicide tolerant weeds.
The potential for development of widespread herbicide tolerance was always a risk of using herbicide resistant GM crops, but the valid concerns were largely dismissed by an enthusiastic biotech industry. As it turns out, GM crops have actually spread their genes to non-GM crops and to closely related weed species. Intense usage of herbicides on the GM crops has also helped to drive the evolution of resistant 'superweeds' which are notoriously difficult to control.
Such events do not bode well for the human and environmental safety of GM crops modified to produce pharmacologically active agents or industrial feedstock chemicals. These crops could be commercially grown in the future.
Pie in the sky
Indeed, extolling the future benefits of GM products while ignoring, dismissing or minimising the potential risks can be seen as a simultaneous embrace of both 'pie in the sky' and 'head in the sand' thinking. Prof. Jones’ approach is the complete antithesis of a precautionary approach to environmental regulation and to sustainability. A deregulated approach is one, however, that the biotech companies seem keen to take. Far from solving some of the perceived problems of chemical based intensive agriculture and food quality, deregulation actually locks the world more tightly into the current flawed agricultural paradigm and does so in a way that just happens to serve the companies with the greatest vested interests.
The notion that the already inadequate checks and balances should be further weakened by smoothing the pathway to approval of GM crops should be seen for what it is: somewhat cynical and entirely self serving. Indeed, the concept of using public money to defray the industry’s costs as proposed by Prof. Jones is also really rather dangerous. A return to the old fashioned business ethics of the chemical companies would effectively externalise the costs of regulation (and inevitable regulatory failure) onto the consumer, and thence, onto the environment as a whole.
The idea, floated by Prof. Jones, that we should be willing to move towards a situation where all our food is assumed to be 'GM maybe' is entirely wrong-headed and not a little arrogant. Anyone seeking to avoid GM foods would have to rely entirely on products grown using organic methods with no guarantee that even these would be wholly GM free. At the same time the biotech industry wants to be allowed to advertise its synthetic products with labels that declare them to be 'environmentally friendly'.
So, welcome one and all to a strange 'Alice in Wonderland' world, where we will pay more for natural goods produced in a sustainable manner, where unnatural products and industrial agriculture are touted as good for the planet and where the public purse and weakened regulations underpin corporate profit. I have to wonder what Professor Jones could have been eating?
Dr. Paul Johnston is Greenpeace International’s principal scientist based at Greenpeace Research Laboratories in the University of Exeter
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