Commons Science and Technology Committee Report – GMOs and the Precautionary Principle

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EU regulations that prevent genetically modified crops from being grown in the UK—even after they have passed rigorous safety testing procedures—are not fit for purpose and should be replaced with a trait-based system for regulating new crop breeding technologies, the Science and Technology Committee argues in a new report.

Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Committee said:

“Opposition to genetically modified crops in many European countries is based on values and politics, not science. The scientific evidence is clear that crops developed using genetic modification pose no more risk to humans, animals or the environment than equivalent crops developed using more ‘conventional’ techniques.

Unfortunately, the way the EU’s regulatory system works means that countries opposed to genetically modified crops can block their growth in other countries. This has driven research activity out of the EU and put at risk the UK’s ability to be a global player in advancing agricultural technology.

Regulatory reform is no longer merely an option, it is a necessity. To meet the huge challenge of feeding a burgeoning global population, using fewer resources, as our climate becomes increasingly unstable, we will need to use all of the tools at our disposal, be they social, political, economic or technological.”

The report identifies three major flaws in the EU regulatory regime. Firstly, current regulations are based on the assumption that genetically modified crops inherently pose greater risk than crops produced using other techniques. This ‘process-based’ approach fails to recognise that the risk posed by a crop has little to do with how it is made and is mostly to do with the characteristics it displays and how it is used in the field.

The current system also assesses the risks posed by these products but fails to balance these with the potentially significant benefits to the producer, the consumer and the environment. This has led to a one-sided decision-making process and has sent a misleading message to the public about the potential value of these products, to the economy, society and the environment.

Finally, current regulations prevent EU states from making their own decisions about whether or not to adopt GM products. This forces those member states that are fundamentally opposed to genetic modification to dispute the science, exaggerate uncertainty and misrepresent the precautionary principle in an attempt to prevent EU-wide authorisation. The result of the risk assessment process being politicised in this way is that applications remain trapped in the system for years, or even decades.

Andrew Miller MP added:

“A regulatory system which can take decades to reach a decision cannot possibly be considered fit for purpose. The recent amendment to EU law to allow individual countries to ban the growth of GM crops in their own territories, without insisting other countries do the same, could potentially help break the stalemate. But it does not go far enough in ensuring that other member states can access crops that have passed the risk assessment process.

The purpose of shared regulation should be to ensure mutual protection from unsafe products, not to unjustifiably restrict the choices available to other elected governments and the citizens they represent. For the sake of our farmers, consumers and the UK’s world-leading science sector we must repatriate national decision making on food and crop safety.”

Precautionary principle

The report concludes that a precautionary principle enshrined in EU law is appropriate in circumstances where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain. Or when there is reason to believe that potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health might result if precaution is not exercised. However, it is clear from the evidence given to the Committee that these conditions are not met simply because a crop has been produced via genetic modification. Continued application of the precautionary principle in relation to all genetically modified crops is therefore no longer appropriate and is acting as barrier to progress in this field.