London (13.8.15) –
One is sorely tempted to philosophise on the variety of reactions shown
by small countries living alongside much larger ones or just competing in
this very competitive world. Some of them get out front and do their best
to lead wherever and whenever they can: Singapore might be one of those.
Others just lie back in the sun and hope for the best or they might get
on with what they already do well and keep going forwards: Iceland? But
others, alas, fail in various ways to pursue either course and like to pretend
to the world (and to themselves) that maintaining some imagined historical
purity, going backwards if necessary, is the best way to deal with the 21st
Such thoughts did cross our minds when we read over this past weekend that the Scottish government (who have jurisdiction over such matters for their own territory), via Richard Lochhead, their rural affairs minister, have revealed plans to continue the government’s existing policy to opt out of European consents for cultivating GM crops, including a variety of maize that has already been approved by the EU and six other GM crops that are awaiting authorisation (1). The minister wished, he said, “to protect Scotland’s ‘clean, green status’ and expressed concern that growing GM crops could damage the country’s £14bn food and drink sector”. “Scotland is known around the world”, he continued, "for our beautiful natural environment [indeed it is] – and banning growing genetically modified crops will protect and further enhance our clean, green status” (2). Will it, now? “There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers” – but then they have not been given much of a chance to voice any such desires.
CropGen was not aware of that Scottish clean, green status reputation but we are based nearly 400 miles from the Scottish border and perhaps the perception diminishes with distance. But we are aware that the "(non-GMO) genetics to developing improved barley" most advertised by Irish and Scotch whiskey makers - proudly proclaimed on their official websites - is Golden Promise which is a 1950s product of radiation mutation breeding (3). Readers who would like to know more about the genetics and safety testing of mutation breeding can find a good account in the New York Times (4). Or should we ask for whisky to be banned because it contains ethyl carbamate, a barley-derived carcinogen present in a range of potable spirits, which has been a concern for distillers (5)? Whisky is something for which Scotland’s fame indeed rings out across the world, so take care.
Some people were, of course, pleased with the Scottish announcement. Mike Small of Bella Caledonia, an anti-GM group, congratulated the Scottish government “acting in the face of huge lobbying pressure from industry and multinationals” (6). Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, always ready to bang an anti-GM drum, said that “Scotland is joining a growing movement of countries and regions all over the world rejecting GM crops because they threaten the environment, human health and farmers' livelihoods. Scotland's determination to keep out GM crops is good news for the UK as a whole, because it sets a high standard that England, Wales and Northern Ireland must now live up to” (7). However, people who may know better warn that “Our brains have evolved to feel first and think second as a survival instinct’; “When it comes to scientific terms, please do a little research” (8). Not a bad suggestion, we feel.
Those who do know and understand are not so happy. Ann Glover (9, 10), a professor at Aberdeen University and former chief scientist to the Scottish government and then the European Commission, did not want to comment in detail but thought that it “would be hard to justify a ban on the grounds of safety as GM technology for plant breeding is supported by a global scientific consensus with regard to safety” (6). Huw Jones at Rothamsted also thought it a sad day, removing freedom from Scottish farmers who could lose out if a blight-resistant strain of GM potato, currently under development, is not permitted in Scotland. That was a view echoed by Scott Walker, chief executive of National Farmers Union of Scotland: “Other countries are embracing biotechnology where appropriate and we should be open to doing the same here in Scotland,” he told the BBC (6).
And to conclude, a comment from the seed industry who are also vital partners in agriculture: Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, thought it was “easy for the Scottish Government to ban GM while there are currently no GM crops available for Scottish farmers” with the clear implication that it will became a lot more difficult when crops attractive for those very farmers become available and are, perhaps, grown south of the border in England (7).
1. Mark Macaskill (9.8.15). Scots farmers’ backlash over GM crops ban. Sunday Times (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/scotland/article1591591.ece)
2. Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn (10.8.15). Scotland to ban GM crops: ‘GM would damage our clean, green brand’. Food Navigator (http://www.foodnavigator.com/Policy/Scotland-bans-GM-crops/?utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=10-Aug-2015&c=v3Iz2S6y%2F0RBnHBgFHKu7O5fJdrZEmA6&p2=)
3. Brian P. Forster (Aug. 2001). Mutation genetics of salt tolerance in barley: An assessment of Golden Promise and other semi-dwarf mutants. Euphytica, 120(3), 317-328 (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1017592618298#page-1)
4. William J. Broad (28.8.07). Useful mutants, bred with radiation. New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/28/science/28crop.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0)
5. T.A. Bringhurst (2015). 125th Anniversary Review: Barley research in relation to Scotch whisky production: a journey to new frontiers. Journal of the Institute of Brewing 121(1), 1-18 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jib.192/epdf)
6. Clive Cookson (9.8.15). Scotland to ban genetically modified crops. Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d70da7f0-3e9e-11e5-9abe-5b335da3a90e.html#axzz3iQdfSbJu)
7. Scotland bans GM crops to protect the nation's 'clean, green' brand. The Herald (9.8.15) (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13583644.Scotland_bans_GM_crops_to_protect_the_nation_s__clean__green__brand/)
8. Joe Mellor (10.8.15). Scotland bans GM crops, and all of Science sighs. What’s the deal? The London Economic (http://tle-online.com/news/scotland-bans-gm-crops-and-all-of-science-sighs-whats-the-deal/10/08)
9. Problems of scientific advising at the heart of Europe. CropGen (16.6.14) (http://www.cropgen.org/article_532.html)
10. Another mess-up in Brussels, bigger and better. CropGen (15.11.14) (http://www.cropgen.org/article_551.html)
Note added 15.8.15:
Professor Muffy Calder, the Scottish Government’s former chief science adviser, said she was “disappointed and angry” at the decision and has warned that banning the growing of genetically modified crops could have “apocalyptic” consequences for Scotland and actually threaten the very assets it is supposedly aimed at protecting”. Key cash crops such as potatoes, soft fruits and barley could be exposed to diseases which “could come and wipe us out”.
Ilona Amos (15.8.15).
Scottish GM crops ban to have ‘apocalyptic’ effect.
The Scotsman (http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/scottish-gm-crops-ban-to-have-apocalyptic-effect-1-3859233)
Further note added 17.8.15:
Judging by The Times this morning, the Scottish government’s views are not enthusiastically shared south of the border.
Describing the technology of RNA silencing (1), the paper comments that the new technique “would give many of the benefits of GM without the safety fears or concerns that altered genes would be passed on through the generations”. Professor David Baulcombe is quoted as saying that most of the objections levelled against GM did not apply to these RNA sprays (2).
In a powerful editorial (3), The Times goes further, noting that “GM foods remain a contentious business partly out of pure mumbo-jumbo suspicion and partly out of pure political cowardice by governments in areas of the world where there’s enough to eat already” and that “Europe has shielded its own industry by means of a mix of superstition and protectionism. This is not a mistake we should make again”. The paper thinks that is it time that opponents of GM-technology should have the grace to accept the new technology. But in this realistic editorial the author admits they probably won’t.
Perhaps especially not in Scotland.
1. Stirring the pot? Ruffling the feathers? CropGen (13.8.15) (http://www.cropgen.org/article_596.html)
2. Oliver Moody (17.8.15). GM lite: technology will benefit crops without damaging DNA. The Times (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/science/article4529445.ece)
3. Green Shoots. The stale and illogical debate around genetically modified crops must not be allowed to inhibit exciting new technologies. The Times (17.8.15) (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/leaders/article4529220.ece)