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Friday, 26 July, 2002, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Q&A: GM and politics
Professor Howard Dalton, the chief scientist in the environment ministry (Defra), told our correspondent Pallab Ghosh of his concerns about the impact of GM on the countryside.
HD: If you have the techniques and ability to put an oak tree gene into a wheat plant - which we do have - we don't know what the problems might be - and that's what I'm concerned about - and that's my worry - and that's why we're doing these experiments to get to the bottom of this.
PG: Describe the consultation process that government has decided to embark on.
HD: Before we put GM crops on to the market, we should engage in a public debate about the implications of what we're trying to do.
This was heralded by the secretary of state on 29 May when she explained it was going to be instigated by myself, David King (the UK Government's chief scientific advisor) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), to try to bring into the public domain the wider scientific issues as well as the socio-economics of the use of gm crops. I'm very concerned that there are a lot of people out there without the facts and information at their fingertips.
PG: Is it going to be a one way street?
HD: It won't be a one way street - the whole point about it is that we want to engage with as many people as possible - particularly the public; a variety of different stakeholders: scientists - both academic and government - and also industry as well. We will engage with everyone. And once we've got that information together then people will be in a position to evaluate it themselves and make up their own minds. We're very keen to involve a variety of public groups: Greenpeace, FoE, the Soil Association, Monsanto/Syngenta - all these people will be part of the process.
PG: What's the end point of this process?
HD: Hopefully at the end of this process people will be clearer as to what the issues are - and we in government will be in a position to decide where we want to take it. At the end of the day, we are talking about the possibility of commercialising GM crops - we need to be able to get a lot of information on that - that's why the farm-scale trails are going on. We're adopting a seriously precautionary approach to all of this.
PG: Was part of the reason for having this debate that the technology was being pursued just for the benefit of industry?
HD: I think there has been that perception. I think you have to realise that GM crops are nothing new - they have been produced in the US and Canada for eight years - there're 52 million hectares of land under cultivation with GM crops. We are importing GM soya that's incorporated into food products in the UK.
There's an awful lot of history here - but there's an awful lot of concern in the public and a variety of pressure groups and the media which is saying, "hold on here, we're not going to do this exactly in the same way as America. Let's take a more careful approach". And this is precisely what we are doing.
PG: Gene flow - what are your worries?
HD: We've been doing conventional plant breeding for thousands of years. Many thousands of genes are being transferred from one compatible plant to another all the time. When we are looking at GM, it's a slightly different issue. We are putting exotic genetic material from one organism into another which would not have happened under normal circumstances. So my concern is that we are moving specific, often just one gene at a time, as opposed to the many thousands that you do with normal plant breeding. What we don't know are the implications of what that one foreign gene might have on other proteins in the recipient plant material. So we're adopting a precautionary approach to see what these problems might be. We are engaging with the FSA. They are looking at many of these modified plants to see if they are toxic or dangerous. So far, the data indicates that they aren't.
PG: There had been an expectation that commercialisation would follow the farm-scale trials. Is there a possibility now that concerns about gene flow will delay things further.
HD: We know an awful lot about gene flow. What we're trying to determine is the extent to which it might be trying to disrupt the environment and also affect food quality. But we are currently doing experiments to understand precisely the problems associated with gene flow in relation to GM crops. Once we get all the information to do with gene flow and once we get the results of the farm-scale trails, we'll be in a much better position to know whether there are any problems and I don't want to prejudge that.
PG: Do you believe that by this time next year you'll have all the questions in your mind answered?
HD: We'll have a lot of them answered - I can't be drawn to say we'll have them all answered. It's not just the UK doing experiments in this area. From one experiment in Australia, there can be pollination 3-5 km away. The assimilation of genes - we know there is some gene flow - is amazingly low. It is something like 0.03%. And these experiments are being done in other countries and they are extremely useful.
PG: There is then a possibility that there could be a further delay in the commercialisation of GM crops?
HD: I really can't say. What were trying to do is get as much information as we can? But I think we'll be pretty close to having a much better answer.
PG: As you know, three years ago some of the biotech companies were pretty annoyed at having to wait to demonstrate something they felt they knew already - namely that GM crops didn't harm the environment. Now, if there's a further delay over gene flow, you risk annoying them further. Doesn't that worry you?
HD: If it means at the end of the day that the British public are going to be happier - and there's going to be more acceptance of it - then I'm sure that industry will be delighted to know that. They are as concerned as anyone else to ensure that the products they are producing are perfectly safe. If there's an extra delay of a couple of months - maybe six months or whatever - of course they'll be frustrated. But at the end of the day, it needs to be done and we have to do it. And we have a responsibility to ensure the experiments are done properly and the results are available for everyone to see.
PG: So you are going to review the research that's being done, commission a few extra bits and pieces if you feel the need to do so, and then when you've got it all in you'll evaluate it and pass on your advice?
HD: Absolutely. We've actually commissioned quite a number of studies in this area so we're getting to a stage where most of these results should be in quite soon. And most of those results should be in before the end of the farm-scale evaluations are in. So, we should be in a position by the time the farm-scale evaluations come out to understand quite a lot more about gene flow.
26 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
24 Jul 02 | Scotland
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