Scottish scientists concern over effect of GM crops ban

Written by Jenni Davidson on 19 November 2015 in Inside Politics

Scientists are concerned the ban on GM crops will have a negative effect on biotechnology in Scotland

Following a ruling by the European Parliament that allows individual member states to decide whether to allow cultivation of GM crops that have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Scottish Government announced its decision in August to ban commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in Scotland.

A number of scientific institutions reacted with dismay to the decision and responded with an open letter to Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment.

The letter, signed by over 30 organisations including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, The Roslin Institute, NFU Scotland and the universities of Edinburgh, Dundee and the Robert Gordon University, questioned the scientific grounds for the ban and raised concern about the potential negative effect it may have on science in Scotland.


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The ban “risks constraining Scotland’s contribution to research and leaving Scotland without access to agricultural innovations which are making farming more sustainable elsewhere in the world,” it said.

“By banning their use in Scotland, this country would be prevented from benefiting from future innovations in agriculture, fisheries and healthcare and consigned to continued use of the old.”

While the ban on commercial GM cultivation does not prevent scientific research into the area, some argue it may affect the commercial viability of such research and the perception of biotechnology in Scotland.

A recent advice paper on GM and biotechnology produced by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in response to the Scottish Government decision notes that Scotland “historically has benefited from a reputation as an enlightened place to progress scientific research”.

It states: “Scotland can build on this existing strength and potentially benefit from spin-out businesses if we embrace fully the range of biotechnologies that are now emerging and which can provide benefits to the economy as well as solutions to some of the major international challenges.

“Conversely, if we do not embrace these technologies, then the benefits will accrue elsewhere in the world, leading scientists will move along with the technologies and Scotland will either be left behind or end up importing technology as a late adopter.”

Scotland has a number of scientific institutions at the forefront of biotechnology and food development. The Roslin Institute – best known for Dolly the cloned sheep – has worked on breeding disease-resistant animals, such as pigs that are immune to African swine fever and chickens that don’t transmit bird flu.

The multi-site James Hutton Institute is one of the biggest research centres in the UK, specialising in environmental, crop and food science, and Scotland’s first food innovation centre, the Scottish Centre for Food Development & Innovation (SCFDI) opened at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University last December to help companies develop their food products for a world market.

There is also the question of the potential effect of the ban on Scottish agriculture, which faces challenges as it is, with CAP support expected to decrease in the future. At present, the ban is unlikely to affect Scottish farmers, since the only GM crop currently approved by the EFSA is TC1507 corn – an insect-resistant variety that is used for animal fodder and biogas production – and very little corn is grown in Scotland.

However, blight-resistant potatoes that could reduce fungicide use and omega-3 enriched oilseeds that could provide a more sustainable source of feed for salmon farming are two examples of future GM innovation that could benefit farming in this country.

Barley is a key crop for Scotland’s multi-billion-pound whisky industry and there have been calls for the establishment of an international barley innovation centre at the James Hutton Institute. Speaking in support of such a centre, NFU Scotland president Allan Bowie noted the challenges facing barley farmers to stay competitive in the face of technological and environmental changes as well as consumer demand. He said that new technological advances, including work on genetic modification, offered ways of putting research to use much more rapidly than was possible in the past.

The open letter to Richard Lochhead criticises the Scottish Government’s decision on the basis that it is “political and not based on any informed scientific assessment of risk.” The main reason given by Lochhead for the ban is that Scotland is known for its natural environment and banning genetically modified crops will “protect and further enhance our clean, green status,” but some scientists claim that, for example, disease-resistant GM potatoes will be ‘cleaner and greener’ by reducing the use of fungicides.

However, the issue touches on more than hard science. Lochhead also cites “no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers” and the potential backlash against Scotland’s food and drink sector, with its natural, high-quality image, if GM is introduced. And with food and drink estimated to be worth around £14bn to the Scottish economy, that is no small matter. For now, the battle appears to one of perception, perception of GM versus perception of science in Scotland, and it looks set to continue.

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