The debate over GMOs in our food chain must be able to cross borders – Brian Wilson

I may have been swayed by a government scientist I met in a developing country who shrugged his shoulders and said, “If I can grow 50 pineapples from a seed instead of one, why wouldn’t I? “. I figured there had to be an answer, but I sure didn’t know it.

Due to legislation in Westminster, the issue is back on the agenda and the arguments for a review of blanket bans are certainly not without merit. Science is advancing and regulations put in place 30 years ago can now act as self-defeating barriers to beneficial advances and further research, especially at Scottish institutes.

On the other hand, one inevitably suspects that the Gene Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is driven as much by ideology as by science. The current stance stems from the EU and its hitherto uncompromising anti-GMO policy, making it an obvious target for those seeking ‘Brexit dividends’.

The bill only applies to England, but is a classic example of why it makes little sense to pretend that what happens in one part of our small island does not affect the rest, a reality that the formal borders would not change unless they were really very hard.

The more practical approach is that policy differences must be mutually respected – and it is the duty of the UK and devolved governments to seek safeguards and accommodations rather than deadlocks on this sort of issue. There haven’t been many signs of that so far.

The campaign opposing the bill in England did not ask for its abandonment but for amendments that are part of a “safety first” approach. The Scottish government should join this debate, especially knowing that the EU is also reviewing its policy with particular pressure from France.

For this reason, it is not expected that there will be a ban on UK products from the EU in light of this legislation. A business case review by the Regulatory Policy Committee, which is otherwise critical of the bill, says: “The risk of further trade friction is low” as it is likely that there will be “future movement towards regulatory reconvergence.

We should not turn our backs on the science that can feed the world, although a proper and informed debate is needed about the future of GM crops, writes Brian Wilson.

In the view of the UK government: “Historically, ethical concerns have dominated the GM space, preventing proper consideration of

scientific proof. The government should signal its support for the scientific case for genome editing; and ensuring that science is taken into account alongside ethical debates”.

From this point of view, the moment may be propitious. Rising food prices and shortages cannot be ignored either at home or in the rest of the world. The case against producing more food at less cost must be strong enough to win public support in the current climate, if it can be done without demonstrable risk.

The concessions sought by the “Beyond GM” campaign include the removal of the term “precision farming” which they believe is

misleading; labeling and traceability guarantees; the extension of risk assessment beyond a narrow scientific definition and “further consultation regarding aspects of concern highlighted by devolved government across the UK”.

Meanwhile, Beyond GM says: ‘We are concerned that too few MPs have grasped the full implications of the bill and therefore it may become law without the full debate and major revisions it requires. We urge our parliamentarians to take action to prevent this from happening.

This is an important debate for Scotland as well as for the rest of the UK and our European neighbours. We must not turn our backs on science which can help feed the world. Likewise, it is the responsibility to ensure that technologies are subject to high standards and clear criteria, not only scientifically, but also ethically, socially, environmentally and economically.

The combination of these goals should not be beyond the minds of politicians and a willingness to listen to reasonable concerns will

a first test for Mr. Sunak.

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