Scientists urge changes to EU’s GMO policies

British scientists release report | They argue that genetic modification regulations are best left to national governments

LONDON, U.K. (Reuters) — Europe’s stringent regulation of genetically modified crops has no rational basis, British scientific advisers have said in a recent report.

They also said the regulations should be revamped to allow countries who want to opt out and grow GM food to do so.

In an advisory report requested by the British government, the scientists said legislation on using GM crops within the European Union should be decided on a national level, as it is with pharmaceuticals.

“Technology for making crops healthier and more environmentally friendly is moving on fast, but the regulatory system needs to change to allow us to take advantage of this benefit sooner,” said Jonathan Jones, a GM expert at Britain’s Sainsbury Laboratory and one of the authors of the report.

Many EU countries have populations who are hostile to growing GM crops. There is likely to be public opposition to the idea in Britain, too, with campaigners arguing that the long-term consequences of having widespread GM agriculture are unknown.

However, the vast majority of scientists argue genetic modification is just as safe as conventional crop breeding and can bring with it great benefits in terms of creating plants modified to resist disease, fight off pests and endure unstable or stressful weather conditions.

In a letter to British prime minister David Cameron, the scientists said the EU “is currently hostile to growing GM crops,” but Britain “can still benefit significantly in developing innovations that the rest of the world will still use” if it is able to argue for national control over GM decisions.

No GM crops are now grown commercially in Britain, and only two — a pest-resistant corn and a potato with enhanced starch content — are licensed for cultivation in the EU.

British GM crop experts say EU regulations add $16 to $33 million to the cost of developing a GM trait in a crop, which is prohibitive for the public sector and small and medium sized businesses.

The first GM varieties were planted 15 years ago in North America, where there is far less opposition to GM crops, and no evidence has been documented of adverse health impacts for people eating GM food.

The British scientists said they endorsed the view of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which has said there is no rational basis for the stringent process for approving GM crops.

EASAC represents 29 scientific bodies across the region.

David Baulcombe, chair of the U.K. report’s working group and head of plant sciences at the University of Cambridge, said most public concerns about GM crops have nothing to do with the technology, which he said is as safe as conventional breeding.

“They are more often related to the way that the technology is applied and whether it is beneficial for small-scale farmers or for the environment,” he said.

For that reason, EU regulations need to be adapted to focus on the crops’ traits, such as their pest-resistance or enhanced yield, rather than on the genetic modification method itself, the scientists argued.

This is the approach taken in regulating pharmaceuticals. Regulators look at the effects that new drugs have on patients rather than on the technology that is used to develop them, which in many cases also involves genetic modification, the scientists said.

Mark Walport, Cameron’s chief scientific adviser, praised the report and said he was sure the prime minister would welcome its advice. However, he acknowledged that it was likely to face public opposition and prompt argument within the EU.

“There will be a discussion. We live in a plural society, and people are going to have strongly held views about this,” he said.

“We have to have a clear and rational debate about the science itself.”



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