What does clean bill of health for GM mean?

“The study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops.”

So said the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in its 380-page report published this week, based on analysis of almost 900 studies on the use and effects of GM crops since the technology emerged 30 years ago.

While the controversial technology may have caused no health or environmental damage, claims of increased yields by proponents of the technology are not born out either. The Academies found that farms that switched from conventional crops to engineered varieties witnessed no substantial change in yields.

About 12 per cent of the world’s arable farming land was planted with GM crops last year. More than 80 per cent of the land in soya bean production uses GM varieties and these crops are widely eaten by livestock in the UK.

So where does this leave us – on the threshold of a GM revolution?

No new GM crops have been approved since 1998, as countries opposed to the technology have been able to block it.

Interestingly, Wales and Scotland, which are both opposed to GM, along with Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland. It’s worth remembering that a considerable proportion of UK poultry is fed on GM crops. So if you are keen to continue avoiding GM altogether, check with chicken supplier.

The latest findings from research and training charity IGD shows that consumers are certainly not crying out for GM food. In fact, more than a third say that their understanding of GM technology is poor. Only 4% strongly support GM food and 44% neither support nor oppose it. I think the best way to describe this is ambivalence.

In the Conservatives’ 2015 election manifesto they said they would take a science-led approach on GM crops and pesticides. Now that EU Member states have autonomy on GM, this could see the Government move to give GM the green light, following this, the most exhaustive review of the scientific data. I

That almost certainly won’t be the case in Scotland. Last August the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead announced a ban on the growing of GM crops, saying: “Just because GM crops can be cultivated in Scotland it doesn’t mean they should be.

“Scotland’s £14bn food sector has a reputation for a clean and green image across the world and allowing the cultivation of GM crops could damage that unique selling point.”

This report did not tackle the thorny issue of mandatory labelling. While all the science may show that GM is safe, it would appear more work needs to be done to convince the public. It’ll be fascinating to see if consumers’ appetite for GM food increases in the wake of this latest report.

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