Edinburgh International Science Festival 2017 / Genetic Modification: Food for Thought

The Edinburgh International Science Festival has never shied away from being a platform for some of the most stirring discussions in the modern world and last week’s discussion on genetic modification (GM) was no exception. Genetic modification has become commonplace in modern research and technology, providing ample benefits to society in terms of food, domestic chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, is it still a matter of concern for the broad public and a source of controversies that the media feeds on. The public feel intimidated by the unknown aspects of genetic manipulations and demand more evidence of the products’ safety. Policy makers often follow suit, which has been perfectly illustrated by 2015 ban on growing GM crops in Scotland, despite the proclaimed focus on innovations.

In a discussion that took place in Summerhall, a panel of experts assembled to revisit the issue linked to GM crops. Scott Walker, the chief of National Farmers Union Scotland, highlighted the challenges in the farming community, such as unpredictable weather, crops’ diseases and customers’ demands. All of these could be addressed by growing GM crops, which can be optimised for higher yields, pest resistance and affordability. On top of that, culturing modified crops can mitigate soil erosion. GM crops can also be beneficial to Scottish farmers, who face growing competition on the global food market, where GM crops are not disfavoured and amount to around 20% of the world’s crops. With optimised technology, these GM products will also decrease in price, and for customers the choice will become obvious.

Prof Jonathan Napier from the Rothamsted Research Institute looked at the problem from the perspective of health and nutrition. He, however, moved away from the traditionally perceived idea of GM crops as a highway to “feed the world” and focused instead on his research on GM plants that can produce Omega-3 fish oils, which are particularly useful for those suffering from metabolic diseases but which are not always sufficiently bioavailable.

The panelists then reminisced about the advent of GM crops decades ago. The initial information came from the scientists, who did not manage to communicate their research in an understandable and engaging way. Scott Walker recalled a researcher who was roaring about the possibility of adding fish genes to strawberries but whose enthusiasm did not resonate appropriately with the public. Such examples demonstrate how scientists may get carried away by their excitement and forget to properly explain the potential benefits to the public. Things, however, are changing, and more emphasis is being put on the public perception. A prominent example is the rebranding of genetic modifications into biotechnology and synthetic biology.

The initial impression is, nevertheless, a lasting one. To quote Prof Napier’s pun, GM crops became one of those “hot potato” topics which are not open to an honest and informed debate. Not only do politicians want to yield to the public’s fears about GM crops, but they also have more important points on the agenda, such as Brexit and international unrest. GM crops are just not high enough on the “to-do” list. Due in part to the the media’s passion for sensationalism, GM crops still cannot completely shrug off the label of “Frankenstein food”

Another issue raised by the audience within the scope of the discussion was the effect of multinational companies and technology patents on smaller-scale farmers. GM crops are often perceived as patented know-hows that raise barriers in the way of local suppliers’ development. However, as Prof Napier pointed out, there is another force, which is much stronger than patented GM crops – supermarkets, whose marketing strategies, along with customer demands, have larger implications for local farmers.

The panelists repeatedly pointed out that, despite the controversy surrounding genetic modification in general and GM crops in particular, many goods are presently being produced using this technology. Among those are the enzymes in washing powder, recombinant insulin, GM soybeans (which are ubiquitous in processed foods) and the GM crops used to feed livestock. At the moment, the world’s population does not solely rely on GM foods but this may change in the future. The food supply chain is inherently fragile, crops are vulnerable and climate unpredictability contributes to the growing uncertainty. We should not forget that GM is just another technology, one that might be crucial in order to diversify our scientific toolkit in the face of the changing world.  

This report was written by Alina Gukova and edited by Teodora Aldea.

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