Genetically modified crops
The simplest definition of a genetically modified organism is one in which the genetic make-up has been altered in a way that does not happen naturally. In agriculture, genetic engineering allows simple genetic traits to be transferred to crop plants from wild relatives, other distantly related plants, or virtually any other organism.
The following initiatives and legislation describe the arguments for and against GM and the Government’s stance on the technology:
- the GM debate
- the Government’s view on GM
- GM legislation
- leading to the current UK position on GM
To date GM technology has been used to develop crop characteristics such as yield enhancement, herbicide tolerance or pest resistance, often to a degree not possible with traditional breeding methods. It has also been used to develop industrial crops, vaccines and physiological changes including improved drought resistance and extended shelf life in fruit and vegetables.
The GM debate
In the light of the arguments for and against GM, a country-wide GM debate was launched by a Government steering committee in June 2003. The debate concluded the following arguments for and against GM food:
- genetically modified foods offer a way to quickly improve crop characteristics e.g. drought tolerance
- GM crops can be manipulated to produce completely artificial substances, from the precursors to plastics to consumable vaccines
- it is important to evaluate and develop GM crops that will help support the world's population in a truly sustainable manner and to help farmers globally contribute to this goal
- GM crops can benefit the environment by reducing the needs for pesticides and fossil fuels
- future GM crops that can be grown under environmental stresses (e.g. heat, cold and drought) will help countries (including developing countries) to improve their food security in a way that is affordable and less damaging to the environment
- the GM debate concluded that GM will not 'feed the world', the current food crisis is a problem of distribution not quantity
- the evidence so far does not show GM crops lead to reduced use of chemicals
- anything that GM can do, other methods can also do, without bringing risks to the environment
What is the Government's view on GMOs?
The Government has an open mind about GMOs. Its priority is to protect human health and the environment. The Government is pro-consumer choice and believes in the need for sound science to guide their development and use.
The Government has concluded that there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the cultivation of GM crops in the UK, but that proposed uses need to be assessed for safety on a case-by-case basis.
The Government's policy statement reflected a careful evaluation of all the information available.
The release of GMOs into the environment is controlled by a piece of European Union legislation known as ‘The Deliberate Release Directive’. This has been translated into law in England mainly by the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Current position on GM in the UK
The Government recognises that transfer of GM presence into non-GM crops could affect the economic interests of non-GM growers and that therefore the co-existence of any future GM cropping and non-GM crops needs to be addressed. The Government is currently in the process of developing these co-existence arrangements in consultation with stakeholders. Defra is consulting stakeholders on this and the following related issues:
- whether a GM threshold below 0.9 per cent might apply for organic production
- options for a mechanism to compensate non-GM farmers if they suffer financially because a GM presence in their crop exceeds the statutory threshold
- guidance for farmers interested in establishing voluntary GM-free zones
Defra announced in July 2004 how it planned to engage with stakeholders on the development of a co-existence regime. This is in two phases. The first phase comprised a series of workshops to discuss the following particular aspects of the overall issue including:
- voluntary GM-free zones
- the regulatory burden on farmers
- the interests of the organic sector
- the interests of the environment and consumer organisations
- the agronomic measures necessary for maize, oilseed rape and beet
Defra has produced a summary of the main findings from these workshops, which are helping structure the second phase of developing co-existence measures before any commercial cultivation of GM crops takes place in the UK. Further details on how this process is progressing are available on the GM section of the Defra website.
Further informationDefra helpline - 08459 33 55 77
Page last modified: 1 July 2006
Page published: 1 July 2006