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expert reaction to Owen Paterson’s speech on GM

Environment minister Owen Paterson gave a speech at Rothamsted Research, calling for the UK to adopt the use of genetically modified crops.


Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser said:

“We need to use the whole range of agricultural technologies to ensure that we have the food to feed a burgeoning global population in challenging climatic and environmental conditions. Genetic modification is an important tool and is widely used in agriculture. Products are extensively tested prior to regulatory decisions. Each new product is considered on a case by case basis and key questions include: What plant? What gene? And for what purpose?”


Sir Gordon Conway, FRS, Former Chief Scientist, Department for International Development, said:

“I welcome the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson’s, speech delivered today in which he strongly backs the importance of GM technologies for agriculture. It is a brave speech although long overdue. Millions of smallholders in the developing countries – in China,India, Africa and Latin America – are already significantly benefiting from growing GM Crops.

“Europe is in danger of being left behind in the development of GM crops. Already Uganda is ahead of the UK in the Research and Development of GM crops with a half dozen varieties undergoing field trials conducted by the Uganda National Research Organisation. Some of these use genes donated by Monsanto and other life science companies.Others are entirely funded by public money, from the Uganda government, USAID and DFID. One example is the development of bananas, a staple food in Uganda, to resist the depredations of a new wilt disease.”


Professor Sir John Beddington, former Chief Scientific Adviser, said:

“The world faces extraordinarily difficult challenges over the next few decades. A growing population focusing increasingly in urban environments and a burgeoning middle class means real and urgent problems of food and water security. These are complicated by increasing demand for energy and inexorable climate change. Clearly any GM organism must be appropriately assessed for health and environmental safety, but an a priori dismissal of this technology will make these challenges harder to address.”


Dr Mark Downs, CEO of the Society of Biology said:

“If we reject GM technology we risk losing this great opportunity of a better future for ourselves and for the many people who do not have enough nutritious food to achieve their full potential.  Malnutrition not only kills, it kills potential. It accounts for almost half of deaths under five, and stunts the growth of 165 million children worldwide. We must use all the means available to prevent this and to ensure that problems don’t worsen as populations increase and climate change drives food insecurity. We need to be able to produce nutritious food in challenging environments without damaging the environment or people; GM offers a potential route to achieve this.

“Plants and animals modified to express desirable traits must be considered on their own merits and not on the basis of the technology used to create them.

“The challenges of feeding a growing population whilst minimising environmental damage mean we cannot afford to put a blanket ban on genetic modification techniques. These technologies have the potential to improve performance and reduce environmental damage and it would be a mistake to close these doors.”


Professor Cathie Martin, John Innes centre said:

“The long time lines and high costs for regulatory approval of GMO crops in Europe have effectively given a monopoly to Agbiotech multinationals in this sector. Only these global organisations can afford the high costs of regulatory approval, which have also restricted the selection of GMO traits to be sent for approval to those that will make significant amounts of money for these multinationals. Easing the burden of regulatory approval will allow the potential for modern agricultural biotechnology for beneficial consumer and environmental traits to be realised and for these traits to be developed by small businesses and publically funded institutions to benefit society.”


Mark J Bailey, Director Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said:

“We welcome this development and recognise the potential for GM crops as a part of sustainable intensification.  Whilst potential benefits may arise we also need to ensure that the use of GM is safe and minimises impact to the environment. The UK Government, industry and the research community share this responsibility for working alongside stakeholders.”


Professor Giles Oldroyd, Research Director, John Innes Centre, said:

“Scientists have shown that GM is a precise and safe technology that can deliver benefits to farmers, the environment and human health. Europe is being left behind and this means economic disadvantages to European farmers and continued reliance on old and damaging technologies such as pesticide use. The European position is also influencing GM policies in Africa and this is limiting the application of this very useful technology to small-holder farmers in the developing world.”


Professor David Boxer, Chief Executive, Institute of Food Research, said:

“Inexpensive, safe and nutritious foods are needed to feed the world’s growing population and we shouldn’t exclude any techniques that may help to solve this massive problem.  Genetic modification (GM) is just one of the options to be considered. The Institute of Food Research supports on-going research in GM as it could have a significant role to play in a sustainable, safe food supply in the future and one that can help address important health issues. We welcome the Government’s position on this issue.”


Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director, Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge, said:

“It is time we stopped giving GM the special status of either saviour or demon and got on with improving the safety, security and sustainability of the food supply chain. The problems facing agriculture are urgent and complex. To tackle them effectively will require all the tools available, deployed with all our ingenuity. GM is just one of those tools with strengths and weaknesses, risks and benefits just like all the others. The intense focus on this one tool and the consequent attitude that Europe has adopted have been very damaging, shifting attention away from the real problems and effectively restricting the use of GM to large a few large multinational companies. There is no evidence that GM approaches to crop improvement should be treated any differently from any others.”


Professor Dale Sanders, Director, John Innes Centre, said:

“As a scientist I do not advocate any particular technology over another.  I would like to see a shift of focus towards the problems that really need attention such as global hunger, malnutrition, environmental pollution and climate change. These are complex problems requiring political, social and logistical solutions, and in many cases science can offer game-changing support.  Examples include increasing yield for subsistence farmers in Africa, reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, making foods nutritious or producing more food without encroaching on more land. 

“It is important that we keep our minds on these global challenges.  Little we do in life is without accompanying risk.  Evaluation of potential scientific solutions to agriculture should be evidence-based, and the overwhelming global conclusion regarding the deployment of GM technologies in the field is that the risks associated with the technologies are infinitesimally small.  By contrast, the gains for society and for the environment achieved through the deployment of GM technologies have been enormous.”


Professor Maurice Moloney, Institute Director and Chief Executive, Rothamsted Research, said:

“We are very happy to see clear leadership on this issue from Secretary of State Paterson. GM crops and the use of biotechnology in agriculture has been effectively on hold in Europe for many years. Meanwhile our trading partners, through biotechnology, have improved yields, protected the agricultural environment, reduced pesticide use and created many new jobs. This has been discouraging for British and European science as much of the technology was invented here. The Government’s initiative puts the UK back into a leadership position in Europe on this issue and will promote a rational approach to the adoption of technologies that our farmers want and need in order to maintain their competitive position in world agriculture.” 

Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said:

“BBSRC welcomes this signal of support for world-class UK bioscience and the possibilities it offers for agri-science, the economy and society.

“GM is one tool in a range of options that can help us to tackle complex problems, such as the need to produce enough food for a growing population with fewer inputs.

“BBSRC supports a range of approaches to tackling these problems as we believe a broad strategy will allow the most appropriate technique to be used depending on the challenge and the circumstance. In some cases, a GM approach could offer a way forward and without it we would risks blocking a solution to major global issues.

“This signal of support helps to keep doors open that could help us in an ever-changing future.”

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