• Question: Will the rules on Genetic modification, and even cloning be loosened in the next few decades? For example will GM crops such as Golden rice be allowed, and do you think the media and the publics opinions of Genetic modification will change, as at the moment the ideas do not seem to be properly understood, presumably because this is a relatively new science, with a common idea that eating GM foods will have bad effects on you?

    Asked by charlie_benson to Andy, Cathie, Jules, Les, Ricarda on 29 Jun 2012.
    • Photo: Julian Little

      Julian Little answered on 29 Jun 2012:

      Hi Charlie, I hope not, which might be a surprise to you. What I hope is that the rules that are already in place will be implemented at a European level so that farmers and consumers have the chance to benefit from the use of GM technology should they wish to do so. 

      The rules on the safety and environmental impact of GM crops are extremely tough, and rightfully so, allowing consumers the confidence that if they consume a foodstuff that has gone through the system, that it is at least as safe as its non-GM counterpart. The problem is that whereas GM crops are being successfully used in 29 different countries by 16 million farmers, politicians in the EU are much more reticent in allowing them here, however safe they are.

      There are some GM crops being grown in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal, and there is nothing in the rules that says that they cannot be used in the UK in the future, but unless Europe gets its act together, you do wonder if we will see that happen anytime soon.

      And Golden Rice? Despite the huge efforts by a number of pressure groups to stop this project, it is entering its last set of field trials in the Philippines and could be commercialised as early as next year. Let’s hope so – it is an exciting product that could really make a difference.

    • Photo: Les Firbank

      Les Firbank answered on 29 Jun 2012:

      The rules may be tweaked slightly, but there’s no sign of them changing very much (in Europe at least, I don’t know about the rest of the world). GM crops are allowed whenever they pass the tests on food safety and environmental impact.

    • Photo: Ricarda Steinbrecher

      Ricarda Steinbrecher answered on 3 Jul 2012:

      The question is not so much whether the rules are loose or tight but whether they are fit for purpose and appropriate to deal with the risks. Rules guiding any (new) technology need to ensure that no serious harm can arise from their use and application to either biodiversity (environment) and/or human & animal health, also taking into account socio economic effects. There are different approaches to addressing this. One can either say: “Let’s do this and see how it works. And if there are problems, then we make rules on how to avoid them in future.” This approach works for technology development on a small scale, in situations where the risk and the possible impacts are foreseeable.

      Another approach is the so-called ‘Precautionary Principle’. In short it means to be to act with caution when there is uncertainty, especially if the effects of an action cannot be undone.

      The Precautionary Principle has been used increasingly since the 1970s, it’s one of the main principles of the original Rio Declaration from 1992, and since 2000 it’s even the part of the EU’s law (Lisbon Treaty). But more importantly in this context: It promotes good science and good risk assessment. With a new technology it is always easy to overlook future effects and problems simply because there can be consequences that nobody had thought about – but once somebody looks at that particular question the problems suddenly become obvious. By now we know a lot of examples: Take for example the pesticide DDT. It’s inventors got a Nobel Price for it in 1948 – and now it’s banned in most countries worldwide. The European Environmental Agency publish a fascinating and very readable report about these cases: “Late Lessons from early warnings” (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental_issue_report_2001_22) – as already referred to in one of my previous messages. As scientists we have to learn from these examples, we have to learn how to make risk assessments that somehow also cover the areas that we didn’t think about. With the assessment of GMOs we have already come a long way. At first (during most of the 1990s), nobody checked whether Bt maize would have an effect on non-target organisms, such as beneficial predators and butterflies, because the idea was that the only organisms that could be affected were lepidopteran pests on the maize fields (ie moths and butterflies). Now we know for example that maize pollen with the toxin blows off the field, onto the leaves of other plants where it can then be eaten by caterpillars of different butterfly species. Now we need to know for which butterflies that is the case. Are there caterpillars on weed plants on or around the fields at the same time as the pollen? How far does the pollen fly? Will it be blown into nature reserves where there are different butterflies from those in agricultural areas? Until we have answers for questions like these, we need to be cautious because too many butterflies are already endangered and we should not risk losing them. In addition, beneficial predators, such as lacewings [1, 2], can be seriously affected by eating caterpillars that have ingested Bt toxin.

      So for many – and especially from a business point of view – the EU rules about GM crops might look like unnecessary bureaucracy, but in fact they are safeguarding environmental protection and scientific scrutiny.

      Re golden rice: it’s a misconception that its been held up due to rules but rather because its not been working as designed. Even the new version has problems with maintaining levels of beta carotene (pro vitamin A). This means that it cannot be stored for any length of time. Additionally, traditional breeding has already resulted in pro vitamin A rich millet and maize, further more, any edible greens and most orange coloured vegetables are excellent sources.

      [1] Hilbeck A, Moar WJ, Pusztai-Carey M, Filippini A, Bigler F: Toxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1Ab toxin to the predator Chrysoperla carnea (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Environ Entymol 1998, 27:1255-1263.

      [2] Hilbeck, A., McMillan, J.M., Meier, M., Humbel, A., Schlaepfer-Miller, J., Trtikova, M. (2012) A controversy re-visited: Is the coccinellid Adalia bipunctata adversely affected by Bt toxins? Environmental Sciences Europe 24(10). doi:10.1186/2190-4715-24-10