When two of the most respected scientific bodies on the planet come out and proclaim something safe you’d imagine that the vast majority of people would accept their advice. But what if that “something” just happens to be the toxic and polarising subject that is GM food?
Two weeks ago the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in the US, published a 380-page report, based on analysis of almost 900 studies on the use and effects of GM crops since the technology emerged 30 years ago.
The report spelt out in black and white the Academies’ findings on the safety of the technology for human health and the environment:
“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 freaky Frankenstein food it ain’t, right? Perhaps, although the findings didn’t go undisputed. And, while the controversial technology may be said to have caused no health or environmental damage, claims of increased yields by proponents of the technology are not born out. The Academies found that farms that switched from conventional crops to engineered varieties witnessed no substantial change in yields.
And, consensus on GM there is not… The Soil Association responded to the US report saying: “The report highlights that there have been no long epidemiological studies which have directly addressed the human health impact of GM food consumption.
“The report strongly rebuts the argument that GM crops are needed to feed the world by concluding that there is no evidence that GM crops have changed the rate of increase in yields.”
Reversing public opinion and indeed widespread scepticism may not be simple. Public opinion has been steadfastly against crops whose genes are artificially mixed with strands of DNA from other species – regardless of the motivation. The most recent major consumer survey found those against GM outnumbered those in favour two to one.
The American study of studies went further. As well as declaring GM food safe to eat, it also concluded its effect on the environment not be malign.
Then just last week the Royal Society also dismissed fears about potential health risks posed by GM foods, as it took a positive step to plug the information vacuum that see half of Brits claim they are ill informed on the issue. It has published a guide: Genetically modified plants: questions and answers, which provides answers to 18 key questions to help people make an informed choice.
Strictly speaking there isn’t much of a choice to make – yet. No new GM crops have been approved in the EU since 1998.
However, about 12 per cent of the world’s arable farming land was planted with GM crops last year and 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 and a considerable proportion of UK poultry is fed on GM crops.
Interestingly, Wales and Scotland, which are both opposed to GM, along with Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland. While the Conservatives’ in their 2015 election said they’d 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 – especially given these latest reports.
Do these latest pronouncements from these two esteemed bodies mean GM food could be appearing regularly in a shop, café or restaurant near you soon? Possibly not, but as we approach a conclusion to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, more GM foods may find their way here.
Neither report seriously tackles the thorny issue of mandatory labelling. But, if it’s safe, does it need to be labelled? Or would you simply prefer for GM food to carry clear labelling because your unease about the technology goes beyond than the health issues?
If you’d like to learn more, why not attend one of the Royal Society’s debates this summer: Growing tomorrow’s dinner – should GM be on the table, featuring the likes of Nick von Westenholz, CEO of Crop Protection Association and Stephen Tindale, former director of Greenpeace UK.