Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Introduction


1. For millennia, humans have been modifying plant genomes in order to create crops that are better suited to our agricultural needs.[1] Every time we choose to breed from the 'best'—the tallest, strongest, tastiest, most disease-resistant—plants, we usurp natural selection, exerting our own influence over the evolutionary process in order to increase the frequency of those traits that we desire.[2] 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.[3] 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 solution.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] In 2013, 18 million farmers in 27 different countries grew genetically modified crops over a total of 175 million hectares—more than 12% of the world's arable land.[7]

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 […] conventional plant breeding technologies".[8] However, GMOs remain subject to stringent regulation under an EU legislative framework which has been influenced by the inappropriate application of the precautionary principle[9]—an approach intended to guard the environment from irreparable harm in conditions of scientific uncertainty.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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 technology.

Our inquiry

5. In February 2014, we issued a call for evidence addressing the following issues:[13]

·  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, why 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 Walport, and

·  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 2.1-2.2 Back

2   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

3   The Royal Society, Reaping the benefits, October 2009, p.1. See also Q445 [George Freeman MP] Back

4   HM Government, Our policy on genetically modified organisms, accessed 8 December 2014 Back

5   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

6   See, for example, Q9 and Q35 [Professor Baulcombe] Back

7   GMC051 [Gov] para 14 Back

8   European Commission, Directorate-General for Research, A decade of EU-funded GMO research, 2010, p.18. Back

9   See paragraphs 97-103. Back

10   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

11   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',, accessed 20 January 2015. Back

12   House of Commons Library, 'The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)', Standard Note SN/EP/6688, 13 January 2015, pp.10-11 Back

13   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

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Prepared 26 February 2015