Plant scientists urge Europe to stop blocking GM trials on ‘political’ grounds

Twenty-one of Europe's most prominent plant scientists have signed an open letter warning that Europe may lose its prime research position unless field trials are allowed of genetically modified (GM) plant varieties that have been judged safe.

The scientists warn that Europe may fall short of producing “world-class science” unless policymakers take a more pro-scientific stance and stop blocking GM research on “political” grounds. They say: “Plant science has arguably contributed more to the reduction of human suffering than biomedical research, yet compared with the latter it is hugely underfunded worldwide.”

At the heart of the new letter are three demands. First, that funding for fundamental and applied plant science should be maintained or, if possible, increased, to develop plants that are resilient to climate change. Second, that plant scientists must be able to perform field experiments: the authors claim that in most European countries experiments in the field with transgenic plants are blocked “not on scientific but on political grounds”. Third, that Europe must allow prompt authorisation of genetically modified plant varieties that have been found safe by competent authorities.

“Politicians that choose to ignore this message cannot in future say that they take science seriously,” said Professor Stefan Jansson of Umeå University in Sweden, who coordinated the letter. The signatories are 21 of the 30 plant scientists with the most citations of their work in academic journals.

In the UK in March, the Council for Science and Technology issued a report, commissioned by the prime minister, into GM crops. It called for more UK field trials and fewer EU restrictions.

It imagined a new UK regulator similar to Nice, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, that would assess each GM crop individually, similar to the way that pharmaceuticals are evaluated.

But anti-GM campaigners said that science was not the only criterion for judging whether crops should get the go-ahead.

“Those working with GM regularly complain that crop approvals are ‘blocked by politics’ but social factors, justice and ethics are perfectly valid considerations in food and farming policy,” said Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze. “The GM crops currently queueing up for EU approval have all the same downsides as the ones rejected by the UK government’s own Farm Scale Evaluations, and we have a right to say that we don’t want to grow food in a way that harms wildlife or hands control over to a few patent holders.”

Stuart Clark

This article first appeared in the Guardian

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