At the end of October, I completed my time on the ACRE, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. This is the committee that gives the scientific advice to the UK government on the environmental risks of releasing genetically modified organisms into the field. This is the first time I’m not deeply involved in the world since 1999, when my director at the time, Mike Roberts, asked me to put together a bid to run the UK Farm Scale Evaluations of GM Crops, which became the largest ecological experiment ever undertaken in this country. Nearly 16 years --- how much has changed?
To start with, we still don’t grow GM crops commercially in this country. But that doesn’t mean we are in a GM-free zone, far from it. Many of our livestock are fed on GM soya, and increasingly micro-organisms are being modified to create vaccines and other products. I said over a decade ago that the key challenge for GM cultivation in the UK is that there wasn’t a GM crop that made a case for consumers in terms of price or quality that was strong enough to overcome consumer (and hence political) doubts; I think this is still true.
We are clearly better at understanding environmental risks than we were back then, but the main problem remains. We still don’t really know how to assess the level of harm of a particular change in the environment. It’s very difficult to have objective standards for environmental change when our environment is constantly being changed anyway, by farming, climate change, urban sprawl etc. To what extent should we accept ecological harm in one place, if it means greater benefits somewhere else? But what has changed is that policy is increasingly focussed on hazard identification, and not risk management. This means that something that MAY be harmful should be avoided, even if the actual risk of management is very low or can easily be managed. It’s hard to see how coffee or potatoes or cars would have got through our current risk-averse regulatory atmosphere. The idea of balancing risk and benefit is increasingly hard to get across.
I really can’t see that we would be able to undertake the Farm Scale Evaluations now, for many reasons. We required 200 trained people, out there collecting data. The UK research institutions don’t have that sort of capacity any more, and while there are high hopes of using sensors, drones and private citizens to collect our data, they can’t do everything. We were funded by Government, with industry at arms length, so that the research would be seen as objective and independent. Halcyon days indeed, harking back to a culture of public service by experts funded by taxes. Government money for research is currently very thin on the ground, while the emphasis is on research that is led by and supports industry. A major GM trial now would be unthinkable without the direct involvement, if not leadership, of the companies behind the crops. The researchers would think a few times before taking part, because the timescale of the project was too long to hit the scientific outputs demanded by Universities to fit the timescales and demands of the Research Excellence Framework, and the reporting timescale of the press and social media.
So if we wanted to look at the environmental risks of a new GM introduction, how would it be done? Who would do it, who would pay, and how would the results be legitimised? Or should we just assume that any innovation in managing our environment is bad on principle?