Crops Create Food for Thought

By Pollock, Laurence | The Independent (London, England), April 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Crops Create Food for Thought


Pollock, Laurence, The Independent (London, England)


For millennia, mankind has asked one simple question about food - will there be enough of it? Cults, festivals and religions grew up around bountiful harvests and well stocked barns. As we approach a new Millennium however, unprecedented doubts have grown about whether many foodstuffs are actually 'safe' to eat. Britain in particular has had a decade of scares about salmonella, botulism, E-coli and mad cows.

With the emergence of transgenic crops and, as a result, genetically- modified foodstuffs, these scare controversies look set to go worldwide.

In the UK itself, current small scale field trials of oil seed rape have moved from scientific to direct farm management and there has been a growth of 'direct action' involving protesters tearing up transgenic crops. But, as the tornado of international concern cuts through the prairies, several OU researchers have come to the fore in developing intellectual storm shelters for clear-headed debate. And that includes the thorny concept of 'safe'. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), from maize and soya to processed tomato paste, have seized the public imagination while arguments about regulation and choice have broken free from traditional technical forums. In particular the issue has teed up a possible battle between Europe and the United States over the invasive nature of GM products. But establishing the European Union's own stance on the cultivation of GMOs is no easy matter. The emotive issue of food safety is one where individual nation states will jealously guard their right to regulate and there are many different standards of measurement. The Commission of the EU is now revising its nine-year old directive, 90/220, which governs transgenic crops. Against this background, a unique seminar took place last month, bringing together big hitters in the international debate and from European decision makers. It was the culmination of a key international, multi-disciplinary 'ELSA' (ethics, legal and socio-economic aspects of biotechnology) research project led by the Open University and funded by the European Commission's research directorate (DG XII). Safety regulation of transgenic crops: Completing the internal market, is the prosaic title for work which could fundamentally rewrite the rules for future debate about food safety. The key concept to emerge, Precautionary commercialisation does not sound any sexier. Properly designed, however, it offers the chance to move forward with some commercial development of transgenic crops linked to post market monitoring to check for adverse effects. It could mean a balance between the dangers of unfettered production and a possibly unworkable moratorium. The project group is co-ordinated by the OU's Susan Carr, David Wield and Les Levidow, from the Centre for Complexity and Change in the Faculty of Technology. It has representatives from Edinburgh University and nine other European countries embracing science and technology, philosophy and the social sciences. Together, they have sought to identify how commercial production, regulation, predictability and acceptability can be balanced. In their final report they identified, for example, crucial areas where the 90/220 directive was unclear or being interpreted differently.

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