1 Introduction |
1. For millennia, humans have been modifying plant
genomes in order to create crops that are better suited to our
Every time we choose to breed from the 'best'the tallest,
strongest, tastiest, most disease-resistantplants, we usurp
natural selection, exerting our own influence over the evolutionary
process in order to increase the frequency of those traits that
we desire. Current agricultural
yields are testament to the success of these methods. However,
according to the Royal Society, "even the most optimistic
scenarios require increases in food production of at least 50%"
if the world is to feed a predicted population of 9 billion by
2050, and this will have to be achieved with less land, less water
and less energy if productivity gains are to be sustainable.
This is an urgent and formidable challenge. It is also a complex
one, comprising many social, political and economic issues that
few would argue can be solved by technology alone. Nevertheless,
as the Government has emphasised, technology has a part to play
in securing global food security and genetic approaches to crop
breeding may offer one potential aspect of this technological
2. Over the last 20 years, the term 'GM' has become
shorthand for a range of technologies that allow us to add to,
subtract from, or in some other way modify an organism's genetic
material in order to alter existing traits or introduce new ones.
Like any deliberate or intuitive breeding method, these technologies
use genetic science to supplant natural selection, but do so with
more control, greater precision and improved reliability, opening
up a broader spectrum of possibilities.
In 2013, 18 million farmers in 27 different countries grew genetically
modified crops over a total of 175 million hectaresmore
than 12% of the world's arable land.
3. Scientific evidence supporting the safety of genetically
modified crops, in respect of both human and animal health and
the environment, is very strong: in 2010, a report by the European
Commission looking back on 130 EU-funded research projects, covering
a period of more than 25 years and involving more than 500 independent
research groups, concluded that genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) were "not, per se, more risky than [
plant breeding technologies".
However, GMOs remain subject to stringent regulation under an
EU legislative framework which has been influenced by the inappropriate
application of the precautionary principlean
approach intended to guard the environment from irreparable harm
in conditions of scientific uncertainty.
Since a framework was first developed in 1990, only two genetically
modified crops have achieved authorisation for cultivation, leading
to what is effectively a moratorium on the technology across Europe.
The difference between the EU's position regarding these products
and that of the US Government has led to disputes at the World
Trade Organisation and is likely to be a factor in the ongoing
Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership negotiations.
4. We decided to conduct an inquiry to better understand
the reasons for this situation in the hope of offering recommendations
for its resolution. We also hoped to elucidate, through a detailed
examination of the case of genetic modification, lessons which
could be applied to the future governance of other fields of emerging
5. In February 2014, we issued a call for evidence
addressing the following issues:
· Are current EU and UK regulations intended
to assess the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods fit for
purpose? If not, why not?
· How have EU and UK regulations on GM foods
affected the UK's international competitiveness?
· Does the current EU and UK regulatory
framework allow for GM foods to effectively contribute to the
delivery of the UK Agricultural Technologies Strategy? If not,
· What are the particular barriers to the
conduct of research on GM foods in the UK?
· Is the EU's application of the precautionary
principle in relation to GM foods appropriate? Does the EU recognise
and handle properly the concepts of hazard and risk?
· Are there other examples of EU regulation
in which the precautionary principle has not been applied appropriately?
6. During the inquiry, we received over 60 written
submissions and took oral evidence from over 30 witnesses, including:
· Supporters and opponents of advanced genetic
approaches to crop breeding;
· Consumer, farming and industry representatives;
· Experts in public dialogue, science policy
and risk regulation;
· The European Commission and the European
Food Safety Authority;
· Relevant scientific advisory bodies and
the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark
· The Government, represented by Lord de
Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Natural Environment
and Science (hereafter "the Minister") and George Freeman
MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences.
We would like to thank all of those who contributed
to this inquiry.
7. Given our intended focus on the EU regulatory
system, we have adopted terms similar to those used in current
legislation. Our terms of reference were focused largely on genetically
modified organisms; specifically, genetically modified foods.
We appreciate, however, that 'genetic modification', as currently
defined by the EU, is just one of many advanced genetic techniques
and that this entire field is just one of many potential trajectories
in agricultural innovation. Chapter 2 therefore provides a brief
overview of current approaches and applications of both conventional
and advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement. Chapter
3 summarises current UK policy on genetically modified crops and
considers the potential role of advanced genetic technologies
in global agriculture, exploring arguments that the use of such
technologies 'locks out' alternative approaches. Chapter 4 examines
in depth the EU regulatory environment for genetically modified
organisms and chapter 5 draws on the findings of the previous
chapter to consider in more general terms how best to govern risk
under varying states of incertitude. Finally, chapter 6 considers
the role of public information and discourse in shaping policy
on contentious topics in science and technology and explores the
need for a wider public debate on the future of food and agriculture.
1 For a history of plant breeding, see: Noel Kingsbury,
Hybrid: The history and science of plant breeding, (Chicago,
2009), pp.20-35. See also Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Genetically
modified crops: the ethical and social issues, May 1999, paras
A trait is 'any detectable phenotypic property of an organism';
that is, its observable characteristics. Traits might include
size, colour, leaf shape, or less obvious characteristics such
as ability to withstand drought or attack by a particular pest.
See Michael Allaby (ed.), A Dictionary of Plant Science,
3rd edition, 2012, Oxford Reference Online. Back
The Royal Society, Reaping the benefits, October 2009,
p.1. See also Q445 [George Freeman MP] Back
HM Government, Our policy on genetically modified organisms,
accessed 8 December 2014 Back
Based on: Richard Cammack et al (eds.), Oxford Dictionary
of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 'Genetically modified
organism', 2nd edition, 2008, Oxford Reference Online,
accessed 26 January 2015. Back
See, for example, Q9 and Q35 [Professor Baulcombe] Back
GMC051 [Gov] para 14 Back
European Commission, Directorate-General for Research, A decade
of EU-funded GMO research, 2010, p.18. Back
See paragraphs 97-103. Back
For example, Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into
the environment of genetically modified organisms, stipulates
that both risk management and environmental risk assessment of
GMOs should be carried out "in accordance with the precautionary
principle". See article 4 and annex II. For a working definition
of the precautionary principle see: United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization, World Commission on the
Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, The Precautionary
Principle, March 2005, p.14 Back
The two products to have gained authorisation for cultivation
are a genetically modified insect-resistant maize (MON810), which
was authorised in 1998 and is currently cultivated in five EU
member states, and a genetically modified high-starch industrial-use
potato ('Amflora') which was authorised in 2010 and withdrawn
from the market in 2011. See European Commission, 'New EU approach:
fast facts', ec.europa.eu, accessed 20 January 2015. Back
House of Commons Library, 'The Transatlantic Trade and Investment
Partnership (TTIP)', Standard Note SN/EP/6688, 13 January 2015,
Science and Technology Committee, 'GM foods and application of
the precautionary principle in Europe: Terms of reference', press
release, 14 February 2014, accessed 26 January 2015. Back