NIAB Innovation Farm GM workshop 2: Public Good Programme?

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Published on: September 25, 2012
Cows and maize, a major GM cattle feed.

For responses to last week’s news story about the GM maize feeding trial that appeared to cause tumours in rats, GARNet suggests: New Scientist,  the Science Media Centre, UKPSF, or for a rather more biting commentary, Forbes.

As discussed in the previous post, GM plant products are commonly used worldwide for food and for animal feedstock. But strict European regulations mean growing a GM crop and bringing its product to market is very difficult in Europe. Any progress toward GM products on the European market, especially under a public good programme, is dependent on a relaxation of EU regulations for GM. The consensus view from the NIAB Innovation farm workshop GM: Is it time for a public good programme? was that if GM was treated as another breeding method, and GM crops were subject to the same regulations as conventionally bred plant varieties, industry would be far more likely to invest in GMOs.

Anti-GM feeling in the general public has reduced recently, but governments still implement anti-GM legislation. This in itself makes a government-supported public good programme unlikely in a European country. A public good programme would also have to overcome several technical and legal barriers. A framework would be needed to allow open access to technology and outputs, therefore a unique intellectual property arrangement would have to be implemented. A wide stakeholder steering group, independent of any one institution, to deal with these and other issues would be essential. Several people wondered what exactly a public good programme would look like – there is a successful public GMO programme in China, but it depends almost entirely on government funding and a similar financial commitment from the UK government is unlikely, at least in the near future.

A public good programme is perhaps a last resort. Several people saw the inevitable increase in food price to an unacceptable level as the point at which GM would be accepted by the public. Vivian Moses gave multiple examples demonstrating that the most people do not strongly oppose GM food, and Cathie Martin agreed, telling us that people usually want to eat the purple tomatoes she has developed. However, there is a worldwide vocal anti-GM movement, and many people trust and respect the views of the Soil Association and organic consumer groups – who are among the most vehement GMO opposition.

Vivian Moses had a number of suggestions to increase acceptance of GMOs. His top priority is to get supermarkets on board, and sees attacking the anti-GMO movement as very important – including exposing the political and commercial motivations of anti-GM groups. Importantly, he suggested that if the genetic engineering provides a consumer benefit, such as increased nutrient content or a lower price, the consumer is happier to eat the product. When GM technology is just being used to make production easier for multinational companies, people are more skeptical about the benefits of GM.

Cathie Martin’s purple tomatoes, with normal red tomatoes

Cathie Martin is trying to get her anthocyanin-rich purple tomatoes onto the market, and had also been considering how best to produce and market GMOs. Her chosen approach is to grow the tomatoes in the USA, where the regulations are more relaxed under the circumstances she requires. Growing tomatoes in a necessarily closed environment eliminates problems of seed release, and not selling plants or seeds on also reduces the amount of red tape to overcome. She intends to sell tomato juice, which is another solution the problem of release of genetic material, as the seeds will be strained.

Huw Jones took a more technological approach to the future of GM, pointing out that the newest biotechnology methods are used to produce modified plants, but the resulting products may not be classified as GM. Zinc finger nucleases, oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis, RNA dependent DNA methylation, grafting (for example grafting a traditional apple tree branch to a tree engineered to withstand environmental pressures) and TALE nucleases are all means of changing gene expression, yet the end plants are not ‘GM’ according to current regulations.

Do you think it is time for a public good programme for GM food? What are your thoughts about GMO products being on the market? Do you think the public will accept GM food, or will scientists and breeders dodge regulations with new techniques? Leave a comment or get in touch at @weedinggems or by email.

Image credit: What you looking at? by Karen Stancliffe and maize by Halifaxsxc, both via stock.xcng. Tomatoes from John Innes Centre

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