On 12th September, I attended a workshop at NIAB Innovation Farm entitled ‘GM – Is it time for a public good programme?’ There were some very good points made throughout the day, and instead of a chronological account of the presentations, two blog posts on the workshop will outline the main themes that came out of the discussions. The programme is on the Innovation Farm website.
The CEO and Director of NIAB TAG, Tina Barsby, kicked off proceedings by outlining the definition of public good: a ‘good’ that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous, and therefore not produced primarily for profit. Making it clear that the workshop was to be very much focussed on the UK and Europe, Barsby argued that as a market for GM products has failed to materialise, it is time for a non-profit, public good programme, perhaps supported by the government. However throughout the day, it became clear that a commercial market for GM cannot yet be written off.
Barsby went on to describe why GM technology in agriculture is necessary. Farmers battling crop diseases and world leaders trying to ensure a reliable food supply both have the same problem – crop productivity is too low for the demands placed upon it. GM is one of the solutions to this problem, and while in Europe transgenic crops are not farmed, genetic modification is universally used in conventional breeding; from mutagenesis to marker assisted selection. Genetic engineering has the potential to make crops resistant to disease, contain increased nutrition, and withstand extreme weather conditions.
One of the audience made the point that globally, GM technology is being quickly adapted. Forty years after Paul Berg published his landmark paper on recombinant viral DNA in 1972, products from transgenic crops are widely used in processed foods outside of Europe, and in animal feedstock worldwide. GM varieties of maize, soybean, cotton, oilseed rape, potato, sugar beet, and swede-rape are all allowed into the EU and sold. Even in the UK there are products containing GM-soybean oil on the supermarket shelves, and you can buy vats of GM-soya oil from certain shops. Such progress in forty years is within the expected time scale for a new technological breakthrough to become accepted. Cars, mobile phones, and computers were all in use decades before they became ubiquitous.
Many aspects of the market for GM products so far are contradictory. Vivan Moses presented studies that showed that when directly questioned about GM, people object to GM food – but did not independently think of GM when asked what issues they worry about. The general public were happy to buy GM tomato puree when it was on the shelves, and cheaper than other products, between 1996 and 1999. In the UK other European countries, anything containing GM has to be clearly labelled, and GM animal feed has made the news several times (for example, in 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2010). It remains in use. However there is undoubtedly public mistrust of GM, highlighted by the fact that GM tomato puree was taken off the shelves in 1999 after an anti-GM campaign sparked by a flawed study that seemed to show severe health problems in rats fed on GM potatoes. Tina Barsby listed concerns about food safety, environmental impact, and ownership issues as the top reasons for anti-GM feeling in the general public.
The speakers and audience at the NIAB Innovation farm workshop suggested action the scientific community and pro-GM bodies could take, and discussed what would be needed for a public good programme for GM. Next week’s blog post will highlight some of these ideas.