The GM debate and the UK General Election

He hasn’t officially started in his role yet, but here’s a blog post from GARNet’s new Coordinator! In light of the upcoming General Election, Geraint Parry talks politics and highlights what the different parties’ manifestos have to say about the genetic modification of crops.

Please note these are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GARNet or its committee.  

Photo ‘hugovk’, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Unless you have been living under a very large rock you’ll be aware that the UK will be going to the polls on Thursday (7th May) for the 2015 General Election. Recently there have been many excellent articles about the Science and Technology policies of the different political parties, including a repository of information supplied by the Society of Biology and a voting recommendation by The Guardian.

Aside from the obvious and real concerns about the levels of future funding, another important issue to consider is the debate surrounding genetic modification (GM). Most people will be aware that EU regulations have recently changed so that, simply put, individual member states will be allowed to set their own policies on the growth of GM crops, albeit with a significant and important number of safeguards to ensure environmental protections. One of GARNet’s roles over the coming years is to encourage the translation of fundamental research, so the political environment surrounding the uptake of GM technology is of great importance for the future direction and efficacy of Arabidopsis research.

Photo by European Parliament, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
Photo by European Parliament, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Although members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted in favour for a change in regulations surrounding GM crops, the major UK political parties have significant differences in their policies toward this technology. Although GARNet isn’t suggesting that you decide your vote on this single issue, the GM debate might indeed be suggestive for a political party’s willingness to embrace new technologies in other areas.

Amongst the 2015 election manifestos published by the mainland UK political parties, only three of them include the word ‘genetic’ in the context of GM crops. On one hand, both the Green Party and Plaid Cymru explicitly state that they will support a ban on the cultivation of GMOs, whilst the UK Independence Party (UKIP) states that they ‘support research into GM foods, including research on the benefits and risks involved to the public’. The stance of the Green Party is particularly interesting as in my anecdotal experiences, many party members are disappointed with this policy given the wealth of scientific evidence supporting the safety and potential of GM crops.

status report coverAlthough the three major national UK political parties do not mention GMOs in their manifestos we can look back over their past histories in this area and use this as a basis for determining future policy directions. Over the past few years the Conservative government has embraced the idea of GM technology. The Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson, has given a number of high profile speeches, stating that the development of GM technology should be a priority for UK science. This opinion fits well with the recent policy document (PDF) published by the UK Plant Sciences Federation, which stated that ‘UK policymakers and regulatory bodies….remove unnecessarily burdensome regulation and ensure that science-based evidence is paramount’.

Whilst this indicates that the Conservative party is a full supporter of GM technology perhaps, as ever, the story is not as simple as it might seem. Currently the vast majority of GM crops are grown by large agri-businesses such as BASF or Monsanto. The proposed loosening of regulations will provide these companies with a foothold in the UK to grow for-profit crops. This embracing of big business is consistent with a right-wing ideology and therefore the Conservative party’s interest in GM crops could be described as much as a business opportunity as it is the chance to develop new varieties that might sustain crop protection through changing environmental conditions.

When the EU vote was taken earlier this year, Liberal Democrats were supportive of the change in policy with MEP Catherine Bearder being quoted as “welcoming the news”. Similarly, correspondences with my local Lib Dem parliamentary election candidate suggested that the party will adopt the ‘precautionary principle’ when it comes to this issue, meaning they will take an open view as scientific evidence develops in the area. Interestingly, a well-established online polling site reveals that a strong majority of people who identify as themselves Liberal Democrats support the uptake of GM-technology. Therefore, the consensus appears to be that the Liberal Democrats will support any legislation to allow the controlled growth of GM crops in the UK.

Arguably, the UK Labour party has the most interesting stance on the issue of GM crops. Although their 2015 election manifesto does not directly address this issue, their recent policy document entitled ‘Feeding the Nation’ (PDF), states that they ‘view biotechnology as a way to strengthen the UK’s food chain and reduce environmental damage….if it has public support’.

However, there appears to be some significant nuance to their policies. David Martin, a Scottish Labour MEP, supports the change in EU legislation, stating: ‘Labour MEPs have voted to give national governments the power to limit or ban the cultivation of genetically modified organisms’. Therefore, this indicates that by supporting the legislation, the Scottish MEPs would push to prevent cultivation of GMOs, at least in Scotland. It remains to be seen whether the national Labour party would use the change in legislation to support the development of GM technology or use it as a mechanism to ban the cultivation of GM crops. Reading between the lines, the Labour party may side with the weight of public opinion when it comes to this issue. Therefore it is imperative for plant scientists to continue their recent good work explaining the technology and allaying any safety concerns that members of the public might have.

The debate surrounding GM technology is fascinating in many ways, not least because it does not simply fall along standard political lines. Whatever the result of the upcoming election, it remains important for scientific advisors to impress upon policy makers the robust scientific support that exists for GM technology and the many and varied benefits that it could bring.

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