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Why Brexit could be a boon for GM crops

27 October 2016

11:29 AM

27 October 2016

11:29 AM

Genetically modified crops could be grown in England following a split from the European Union. But will it be good for Britain to forge ahead with a science that many consider to be dangerous for the environment, and potentially our health?

George Eustice, the agriculture minister, revealed in a written parliament answer that as part of plans for Brexit, the government was looking at the regulation of genetically modified crops.  It has come as no surprise to the farming world, which has been campaigning for years for a more relaxed approach to GM. Many in Westminster already support the planting of GM crops on a commercial scale – although the situation is different in devolved administrations. However, we are unlikely to be seeing suspiciously large potatoes or glowing carrots in our fields anytime soon. The GM crops grown here will still have to be approved for commercial use – if not by the EU, by our own government. 

The kind of crops grown in England, such as wheat and potatoes, could potentially benefit from genetic modification to resist disease, but at the moment, there are none in the pipeline that suit the British climate. Strains of GM maize are available, but these are designed to resist insects found in much warmer climates. And scientists are unlikely to develop any suited to the British climate soon, because England is such a small market relative to the rest of the world.

The real boon is for the scientific community, who will see Brexit as an opportunity to attract investment into research and development. Frustration has been building at the failure from Brussels to license potential GM crops, because of the painfully slow process of approval by all member states. If the UK could license crops independently it would make it a very attractive place to base research. Whether this will make up for potential loss of funding from the European Union – or even scientists leaving the country – is another question.

The important thing is that GM crop development is led by scientists – not by politicians. This has been the problem with GM for so long. The Daily Mail famously labelled potential genetically modified fruit and vegetables as ‘Frankenstein Foods’, effectively halting the move to supermarket shelves. The public were terrified and the regulations reflected that. Since then, the science has developed. UK centres like the Sainsbury Laboratory and Rothamstead Research claim that second generation GM crops show potential for feeding the world without damaging the environment further.

It is tempting for pro-Brexit ministers to see the potential for a boom in GM research as proof that Britain is better off out of Europe. It is certainly sexier than trying to explain the potential of reforming the Common Agricultural Policy to members of the public. But the success or failure of GM crops in Britain should not be about proving a political point. It should be about scientists working within a rigorous safety framework. Already we have seen the damage done by herbicide-resistant GM crops creating ‘super weeds’ in the US, and research into the effects on human health is ongoing.  Leaving behind the EU and problems with a large bureaucratic system does not mean lowering standards. Otherwise you end up creating a monster far worse than Dr Frankenstein’s. 

Louise Gray is the author of The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat

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