Scotland Is Banning GMOs, but Is It the Right Move?
The Scottish government has announced that it will ban the growing of genetically modified (GM) crops. The move is in response to new rules by the European Union (EU) that allow countries to opt out of growing EU-approved GM crops, including corn and six other crops that are expected to be authorized shortly.
Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead described the move as one primarily motivated by economics, saying that “There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14 billion food and drink sector.”
While the ban affects food grown for consumption, it does not cover GM plants grown for scientific research, which are still permitted in controlled environments like laboratories and greenhouses.
Understanding the Ban
It’s important to note that Secretary Lochhead cites a “consumer backlash” against GM crops as the major reason for Scotland’s refusal to allow farmers to grow them. He closes his official statement by saying, “I firmly believe that GM policy in Scotland should be guided by what’s best for our economy and our own agricultural sector rather than the priorities of others.”
This is in response to public opinion in Europe that has become largely anti-GMO over the past two decades. Much of this sentiment blew up in response to the failure of regulators to prevent problems associated with Mad Cow disease and other contamination issues that made headlines in the 1990s. In Europe in general and in France in particular, the public is distrustful of the EU’s view that the benefits of GMOs outweigh the potential risks.
Because of this strong public sentiment, demand for food products made with GM crops appears to be relatively low in Scotland, whose government is banking on this opinion to remain static for the foreseeable future.
Understanding the Science
Despite strong public opinion in various regions of the EU, the scientific consensus around the world is that GM crops are fit for consumption and pose no threat to the environment. Huw Jones, professor of molecular genetics at Rothamsted Research, told the BBC that the decision represented a “sad day for science and a sad day for Scotland.” He is confident that the EU-approved crops are safe.
A major scientific review of the research on the safety of GMOs corroborates Jones’ assertion. The Italian scientists who conducted the review have “not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops,” though they acknowledge that the political debate remains intense.
Indeed; just as it falls on us to determine whether our favorite fad diets are backed up by science, so too are we responsible for educating ourselves on the scientific merits of GMOs. It might sound like a lot of homework to do just for a grocery run, but there’s really no excuse for remaining in the dark.
So let’s go a step further. Most—if not all—of the produce you might buy from your local grocery store has been genetically modified in some way. The problem, of course, lies in our definition of “genetic modification”—a phrase that’s become synonymous in recent years with test tube grotesqueries and unchecked mad science. Back in reality, it’s fair to say that the next time you order a pie from your favorite pizza joint, you’ll be eating tomatoes that were specifically bred for color, shape, and taste. Humankind has been subtly influencing natural selection for thousands of years; GMO technology is simply the obvious next step in a process that many of us have been carrying out in our very backyards.
Beyond creating visually perfect tomatoes, there is also evidence that GM crops can be beneficial to farmers, especially when the modifications improve pest- and disease-resistance in plants. Such developments appear to be more effective than modifications that make plants resistant to pesticides like Round-Up, and they could ultimately lead the way to reducing chemical pesticides in the future—a potential boon to farmers and consumers who prefer more organic methods.
A Look Toward the Future
You don’t have to take my word for it; as scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, GMOs have been around since humans first began agriculture thousands of years ago. In the quest for bigger yields and healthier crops, farmers have always selected and bred organisms for desirable traits, and growers will continue to do so with the help of biotechnology and other advances.
Unfortunately, the debate will likely continue, and governments like Scotland will have to weigh the pros and cons of both science and public opinion to make decisions that make the most sense for their constituents.