MP George Freeman’s report on the impact of EU policy on the science industry suggests the UK is being held back from developing bio-technology. In the on-going debate over GM production, these findings signal the UK is falling behind, Freeman believes, foregoing the type of scientific developments vital for the country’s future.

"Amazing opportunity"

"Bioscience and the use of science and innovation in helping the world to grow more food is an amazing opportunity for scientists and companies; if we don’t go down this route the cost of food will get more expensive, inward investment will fall, whilst the rest of the world embraces these technologies - grows more from less, reduces pesticides - Europe will become an older poorer economy in this field and we’ll all lose out."

By genetically modifying crops, scientists can create hybrids which are resistant to pests and disease, and give greater yields, increasing production and lowering costs.

As it stands, millions of hectares of GM crops are being grown worldwide. These are mainly big, commercial crops such as maize, soy, oil seed rape and cotton.

Proponents argue that by creating these pest-resistant varieties, there will be less need for toxic pesticides in the long term, which could lead to a cleaner and greener environment.

Pros and cons of commercial GM crops

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Own Paterson, has been vocal about the ‘real benefits of GM technology’. As things stand, genetically modified crops can’t be commercially grown in this country.

Traditionally in Europe there has been a great deal of consumer concern about GM crops being commercially grown. But, Julian Little, Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, believes public opinion is changing.

"If you look at the surveys that have been done, either retail surveys or others, what they show is that consumers understand there are benefits to that technology, and don’t have concerns about them being used in developing countries. There is still some reticence about them being grown in the UK but we have seen a lot of movement in terms of a willingness to grow field trals in the UK such that we can see how a GM crop would be grown in the UK."

However, according to Angelika Hilbeck, part of The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), the technology is still in its infancy, and we must be wary of calls for the removal of EU regulation.

Commercialising GM crops could potentially be dangerous.

"You are moving genes, you are putting them in a new genomic context. And just as much as you have to test whether it does its job for the good, you have to test whether it does things you don’t want it to do. It’s just like with any other product of technology you put out there, and we know far less about biological organisms than we know about any man-made technical physical product."

She also believes it’s a mistake to think innovation only happens within a commercial environment, or that removing regulation would necessarily mean progress.

In countries without regulation, we are not seeing any big advances in the technology.

"It’s not the regulations- that’s just plain propaganda. It’s the technology that isn’t in the position yet to deliver the products they have promised. They could deliver any product under the sun they wanted or that technology was capable of producing, in the United States of America- there’s basically no regulation and oversight- they can do whatever they want to. And do we see more products coming out? No, we don’t."

The argument is clearly complicated. It involves social health concerns but it also has a bearing on where the UK stands in relation to Europe. Once again it feeds into fears over just how much Britain chooses to throw in its lot with EU law.

(VoR)