A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies
It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.
In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs.
The report has been published following a consultation with several organisations and individuals, including scientists and campaigners. In his evidence to the committee, the John Innes Centre’s Professor Mike Bevan said that plant science in the UK is a strong and well-organised field of research.
“Plant science in the UK punches above its weight,” he said. “However, the current regulatory system means that the fruits of this research are not able to be applied in a straightforward manner.”
The environmental activist and former anti-GM campaigner Mark Lynas, who reversed his position on GM crops in 2013, said the “non-functional” model used in Europe has led to even stricter regulations in African countries.
Lynas said in his written evidence that African governments are concerned about the impacts of GM crops because of EU opposition. “Surely, they ask, such an advanced and enlightened continent could not possibly have a regulatory regime based on politics rather than science?”
Another of the committee’s recommendations is that we stop using the term ‘genetically modified’, or ‘GM’. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said that the term makes people think of such techniques “as though it was a generic technology, which we should not do.”
The committee also said the term also encourages people to use the same arguments as when the first GM plant products, such as Flavr Savr tomatoes, were developed in the 1990s – despite huge developments in the techniques used since then.
But delivering food security needs a diverse range of approaches, the report says. There isn’t one “cure-all” for the global challenges facing agriculture, and the approach we take should use social, economic and political methods in tandem with technological means.
The Science and Technology Committee, like all House of Commons select committees, is independent of the government. Its role is to scrutinise the Government Office for Science and make sure its policies and decisions are based on scientific evidence.
You can read the full report on the committee’s web pages.
Mabon is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. He’s currently on a science policy and communication internship. He tweets as @mabonrhun.