Parliamentary Questions Reveal UK Government is Ill Informed and Misleading on GM Crops

When asked by MP Zac Goldsmith, about research on the cost effectiveness of genetically engineered crops compared to conventionally bred ones, Parliamentary Under-Secretary Dan Rogerson gave an answer that is so misleading it barely has a nodding acquaintance with the truth.

Given that the UK government is pushing GMOs and the bullish belligerence of its food and environment minister Owen Paterson as he promotes genetic engineering technology, it’s reasonable to think that the UK has carried out extensive research to back up its policy. Not so; answers to parliamentary questions show that there is little or no UK based research to support Paterson’s recent statements.

In other written answers to parliamentary questions from Goldsmith, Ministers from Defra (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) have admitted that the UK has carried out no research on the emergence of herbicide resistant weeds as a result of GM cropping.Nor have they looked at alternatives to genetically engineered rice for tackling Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in developing countries.

Economical with the truth about economic facts

Zac Goldsmith asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs “what research his Department has commissioned into the cost effectiveness of GM crops compared to conventionally bred varieties; and if he will provide the (a) conclusions and (b) cost of each such project.”

In a written answer on the 14th Oct, Dan Rogerson replied: “A DEFRA-funded review has been published of the farm-level economic impacts of GM crops, available at http://www.environmentalevidence.org/SR11002.html. He went on: “The main conclusion from the study is that farmers growing GM crops experience higher costs but also higher profits than those producing the equivalent non-GM varieties.”

A clear answer, one might think, giving UK farmers reassurance about the viability of GM cropping in this country and in the EU. In fact the answer is so misleading it possibly breaches parliamentary standards. Certainly many people might consider it to be dishonest.

The review Rogerson quotes primarily covers cotton – hardly a major European crop with a total of 300,000ha grown in only Greece, Spain and Bulgaria.

Only 3 papers in the review look at a major EU crop – Maize. One of these relates to S. Africa and has virtually no relevance to UK conditions; one study is in Portugal and one is Spain – which are at least in the EU but are not varieties that are grown in the UK.

It gets worse; the reviewers only found 22 published papers which met their assessment criteria and they categorised 8 of these as low quality.

Even in an era where many people believe government deviousness is commonplace Rogerson’s answer is remarkable. It might stand out but it’s not the only example of Defra ministers making misleading statements on GM issues.

Righteous ignorance over Golden Rice

Speaking about the rice (Golden Rice) which has been genetically engineered to produce provitamin A to combat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), Defra supremo Owen Paterson told the Independent newspaper, “It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology.”

Did Paterson know – or did he choose to ignore – the fact that development of this rice has been badly held up by problems with the technology and not because of opposition to it? He seemed not to know – or chose not to mention – the fact that Golden Rice is some way from being commercially available; nor has he demonstrated any knowledge of other and successful approaches to combating VAD .

Zac Goldsmith’s parliamentary question was therefore particularly pertinent.He asked; “the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(1) what research his Department has funded on the effectiveness of different approaches to tackling vitamin A deficiency in the Global South including GM, conventional plant breeding, vitamin supplements and diet diversification?
(2) What stage of development GM golden rice has reached in terms of (a) its risk assessment on health and the environment and (b) its efficacy in tackling vitamin A deficiency?

In the light of Paterson’s vehement assertions about Golden Rice the answer – provided in writing by another Parliamentary Under-Secretary, George Eustice, – is hardly credible. Defra has done no research or evaluation of the evidence relating to Golden Rice or alternatives and they can offer no information on their own account or view about its development and risk assessment. Mr Eustice could only report that: “Up-to-date information on the development of GM golden rice is available on the website of the International Rice Research Initiative”.

Misinforming parliament

But with blatant misdirection he provided a link to a page which provides no detail of the pros and cons of the Golden Rice project (http://www.irri.org/ ).
And he chose not to provide a link to the page where IRRI acknowledges that; “It has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness.”

On the same page IRRI says that that further studies are needed and provides a link to a renowned international organisation which highlights a range of non-GM approaches to VAD; “If Golden Rice is approved by national regulators, Helen Keller International and universit y partners will conduct a controlled community study to ascertain if eating Golden Rice every day improves vitamin A status”.

In fairness Mr Eustice and his officials might not know about this information. But given their boss’s pronouncements shouldn’t they? Don’t they have a duty to provide full and honest answers to Parliament?

Defra’s dereliction of duty

Defra’s official position on GM crops is that they offer great potential to farmers and that there is little or no evidence of adverse environmental impacts.

Owen Paterson says that the UK government is working to ensure that EU regulations on GM are relaxed so that UK and other EU farmers can benefit from the technology as soon as possible. It’s reasonable therefore to presume that Defra has assessed and evaluated the problem of widespread resistance to herbicides – and particularly glyphosate – which has emerged with the increase of GM cropping in the US. This problem is causing huge concern and numerous studies and papers have been produced by US universities, extension agencies and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Defra has set up a team to study how co-existence between GM and non-GM crops in the UK could work. So, as the minister wants GM crops grown commercially in the UK in the next year or so, it’s a “no brainer” that this team will have looked at how glyphosate resistant weeds have developed and how they might impact on UK farms and countryside.

Isn’t it? Er, no.

This is the relevant extract from the parliamentary report (Hansard):

“Zac Goldsmith: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what research his Department has conducted on the effect of the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds in (a) the UK, (b) the EU and (c) other countries and the effect of such developments on the costs of production.

George Eustice: DEFRA has not commissioned any research on the effect of glyphosate-resistant weeds.”
None; apparently there isn’t even an internal evaluation.

So on what basis is Paterson blowing so hard and with such certitude that GM crops will benefit UK farms?
Isn’t it a dereliction of duty for Defra to be promoting a pro-GM cropping policy with little or no analysis to back it up?

Lawrence Woodward
19/11/2013
Sources:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm131014/text/131014w0001.htm#131014w0001.htm_wqn83
This article first appeared on www.gmeducation.org

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