June 7, 2010 • 11:00 pm

The backing offered by the coalition government for genetically modified (GM) food means that the controversial crops are set to stay on the menu.

Yet despite the support significant numbers of people remain unconvinced as to the environmental implications of such crops.

Today a new trial is beginning into a new genetically modified potato, raising concerns among environmental campaigners.

However their concerns have been roundly dismissed by one scientist involved with the research.

The Claim

This morning, Professor Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury laboratory told the Today Programme: “The allegations of the danger and the concerns about the technology are really unfounded and we have to get over it”.

Today’s twitterfeed picked up on the comments, reporting to followers: “One of the scientists behind a trial of GM potatoes says fears about such crops are “unfounded”.

So is Professor Jones’ statement a fair assessment of the concerns of the anti-GM lobby?

Analysis

Taken at face value the claim would appear to be inaccurate.

For instance, science journal Nature reported last month that a ten year study into insecticide-resistant crops, had shown there had been a boom in insects not affected by the pesticides used, which then threatened to other crops.

A wide-ranging study produced by the Royal Society last autumn which acknowledged that there could be a negative effect on biodiversity in an area were herbicide resistant crops could lead to herbicide resistant weeds, with similar effects possible on insects when insecticide resistant crops were grown.

However the report stressed that complexities in the debate meant trade offs between such costs and benefits in terms of food production would need to be accepted.

When UK politicians have taken soundings on it they have flagged up possible areas for concern, although have by no means come out completely against GM crops.

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee published in 2004, stated that the evidence they had received on GM production in America had been “predominantly negative”.

The committee took evidence of the increasing use of herbicides as herbicide-resistant weeds grew among the GM crops.

The Government-commissioned review into GM in 2003 called for nuance in the debate. It suggested that there was no grounds to rule out GM crops.

The research did raise concerns over uncertainties on the effect on wildlife, but suggested that tests carried out prior to the report’s publication, suggested the crops were unlikely to invade the surrounding environment.

Full Fact spoke to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology who conducted a trial of GM crops in the late 1990s.

A CEH spokesman told us that the findings were “not clear cut” and varied between the types of crops used.

As this summary of the trials shows, the study found both positive and negative effects of the GM Crops on the surrounding wildlife.

We also spoke to the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) who stressed that the inconclusive nature of such results made the need for experiments like those discussed today, necessary.

“We very much acknowledge there are concerns among the public over GM crops, and they are not in any way a panacea. However they are things that are worth researching in controlled circumstances such as these,” a spokesman at the council said.

Therefore when looking at Professor Jones’ comments in isolation the bold claim seems open to question.

We spoke to Professor Jones about his comments, and while accepting the debate was complex, he warned against possible inaccurate claims from environmental campaigners.

Discussing the GM issue as a whole, he said: “We need to distinguish between concerns about the impact on the environment and concerns about impact on human health an between kinds of examples of GM – different crops and different geographies, so its complex.”

He was nevertheless dismissive of some of the claims made about the blight-resistant potatoes

“The idea some GM potato could impact the environment negatively if they are blight resistant is frankly silly,” he said.

Because potatoes are through tubers rather than seeds, he said the potato in the trial could not have an adverse impact on the wider environment.

“Even if some bee did carry a pollen grain from our plant to some hypothetical non-GM potato in some farmer’s field it would not enter the food chain because what people eat are the potatoes, they don’t eat the potato seed.”

Professor Jones argued that this was a point made by Friends of the Earth representative Kirtana Chandrasekaran, which he claimed was inaccurate.

Such concern in the scientific community is apparently widespread. Full Fact understands a number of scientists have complained in emails over the perceived failure to challenge Ms Chandrasekaran’s claims.

Sadly, checking these claims would require at least another article.

Conclusion

If such problems are taken on board Professor Jones’ comments become understandable, in the context of the trial beginning today.

However, in relation to the wider debate, about which the general public have less understanding of the complexities, statements such as those analysed here have the potential to give the wrong impression.

As the work alluded to in this piece has suggested there is evidence to back up concerns about increasing use of herbicides, for example.

Yet as has been put to Full Fact by various sources, the issue is not so simple as one single GM technology that is either good or bad, proven or unproven.

But given such complexities, the need to avoid sweeping statements on one hand, or factual inaccuracies on the other becomes all the more necessary.

 

 

Patrick Casey

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