UK House of Commons: Greenpeace, anti-GM activists distort science on GMOs, calls for deregulation

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The European Union and its member states need to drastically revise its regulations so that genetically modified crops can be approved if they are scientifically shown to be safe, according to a UK House of Commons committee report.

The analysis—”Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution”—also asked the UK government to make similar changes to its regulatory structure, potentially opening the door to new genetically modified foods and crops that have been caught in a regulatory and political stranglehold while much of the rest of the world is expanding the use of GM in agriculture. Currently 28 countries grow GM crops.

For nearly 10 years, the European Union has effectively or explicitly banned the application or import of genetically modified crops in its member states, though recently the governing body has begun to question a stance that is much stricter than the UK, the United States and other nations. Several EU member nations have become interested in using or developing modified crops, and have begun petitioning the EU for a loosening of its strict positions.

The report does present a mixed message on the thorny issue of how to deal with non-scientific cultural or emotional opposition to new technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee appeared to try to address concerns voiced by anti-GMO activists that political and cultural considerations should be part of the decision matrix in European and developing-nation governments. But the House of Commons committee also criticized “the precautionary principle,” which activists often cite to justify non-science concerns.

The precautionary principle is not a scientific principle but a cultural interpretation of risk tolerance that has been embraced by many governments, most commonly in Europe. Those opposed to GM crops invoke it, claiming that “genetically modified crops inherently pose greater risk than crops produced using other techniques,” although every major science organization in the world including every one in Europe, state clearly that GM crops are as safe or safer than organic or other conventional crops.

According to the House of Commons report, these distortions of the precautionary principle by GM opponents have resulted in:

  • Overlooking the true risks of a new crop, which arise from its characteristics and use in the field, and not from how it is made.
  • A failure of the UK and EU to keep up with the blisteringly fast pace of agricultural biotechnology, which is already developing new forms of “cisgenic” and other genetic methods that are more precise than previous methods and don’t require splicing of a foreign gene.
  • Ignoring the benefits of biotechnology, while targeting all possible risks, because of an undue focus on scientific uncertainty that may never be resolved, and was never resolved when approving other traditional methods.
  • Forcing EU member nations to state their opposition to GMOs in scientific terms (often resorting to debunked studies), while their true opposition is on political or ethical grounds.

Just as significantly as its recommendations for regulatory reform, the House of Commons report also demanded reviving public debate on the use, risks, ethics and issues revolving around genetically modified crops. The committee members noted that even using the term “GM” limited full debate, because technology around modern agriculture has evolved well beyond what scientists and the public perceive as genetic modification.

Non-government organizations (NGOs), such as Greenpeace or GM Freeze, were among those invited to comment to the committee while the report was being prepared. However, the report singled out these organizations for “knowingly and willingly misinforming the public.” The report cited comments from Greenpeace International, which wrote that “there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact,” the Alliance for Natural Health, which had written that “GM represents the biggest uncontrolled experiment ever,” and GM Freeze, which predicted the possibility of “massive social, economic and environmental damage worldwide.”

Just last month, a consortium of anti-GMO advocacy groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and GeneWatch UK sent a letter to the European Commission demanding that products derived from new methods of genetic engineering for plants and animals, such as gene editing, which are not as tightly regulated as classic genetic engineering, should be subject to EU’s current labyrinthal assessment and labelling laws. Their goal is to bring a stop to innovation in genetic engineering.

NGO opposition has had dramatic consequences on human well being, some studies suggest. “A recent analysis estimated that the cost of the eco lobby’s opposition to (genetically modified) Golden Rice has been about 1.4 million life years lost last decade in India alone,” said Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey. “The committee’s new report rightly urges Greenpeace and other eco-activist groups to cease their ideological-motivated opposition to this potentially life- and sight-saving crop.”

The media was not left off the hook, either. The report, being British, focused on broadcasts by the public British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), citing partiality caused by “false balance,” and a failure to treat lobbying groups as interested parties.

A few commenters in opposition to the UK Committee’s recommendations included the Scottish government, which focused on risks to the reputation of Scottish agricultural products. “Scotland’s food and drink sector depends to a large extent on the public’s perception of our clean and green image…In addition, while I appreciate that GM crops have been thoroughly trialed and tested, there is still some debate about the long term effects on the environment from growing GM crops. So, while the risks may be low, we have decided to take a cautious approach with respect to GM crops,” Scottish Environmental Minister Aileen McLeod wrote.

Opening the door to a public debate would mark the first official such forum since 2010. Meanwhile, other British officials have begun efforts to begin such talks.

What’s at stake? Being able to increase food production worldwide by 50 percent “if the world is to feed a projected population of nine billion by 2050, and this will have to be achieved with less land, less water and less energy,” according to the Royal Society.

“The debate on GM is too often hampered by myths and misinformation,” said Professor Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society. “That is as true of the debate among legislators as it is of public debate. To have a good discussion people need to be able to assess the actual evidence, free of the ideology. The Select Committee is right that it is time for that discussion to happen.”

Note: This story first appeared on the GLP in February, 2015.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • First Officer

    Yup, can’t mess with Scottish haggis’ reputation !

    • 1weeman

      Could be there are canny Scots who have not been brainwashed by the GM Lobby. Think of the impact on the distillery’s a just one example.

  • gefreekamloops

    The people spoke and the governments were forced to listen. Now Biotech is petitioning the Government, big surprise. He who holds the gold makes the rules.

    • Stuart M.

      The masses are asses where science is concerned. That is what Greenpeace and these other checkbook advocacy groups are relying on. Three cheers for the House of Commons!

      • gefreekamloops

        an imperialist dictatorship is not the same as a democracy. Interesting point you make about advocacy groups, but how on earth could they reach the masses without capital. If you want to play with the big boys then Not-for-profit is just not gonna cut it forever.

  • John Wetherall

    I wonder whether history will record accurately the major damage inflicted on the planet by ideological but irrational organisations like the anti GMOers, including Greenpeace of course. The evidence is largely in – with 2-3 decades of demonstrated safe massive consumption of GMO cereals by man and animals and no evidence for harm. Ironically, it is probably anti GMOers that are the main consumers of “organic foods” and these are far more likely to transmit infectious agents and toxins than any product that contains a GMO food. The antiGMOers are a bit like adherents of a religion – they rely on faith. However their religion may be akin to the jimmy Jones brand.

  • 1weeman

    Could the pro GM lobby Google HR933 also known as the Monsanto Protection Act. They might feel a little different about embracing this science.

  • crush davis

    Is it me, or do a lot of these people calling everyone who disagrees with them “Monstano’s shills” also have the stink of class-warfare, socialist dogma on their breath? As if the $60 billion organic industry isn’t trying to influence policy. Give it a rest. You granola-crunching hippies are just as guilty. The difference is you hide behind the farmers’ markets and the “Buy Local” campaign, laughing to the bank.

  • AAron Hinman

    The anti-GMO and anti-nuclear lobbies will have a lot to answer for when they meet their maker.

  • Wackes Seppi