A public perspective on biotechnology

Interview with Julie Hill, the European Federation of Biotechnology’s Task Group on Public Perceptions of Biotechnology
OECD Observer
Page 26 

The issue of GMOs in food and their possible effects on the environment have featured highly in the European media since the start of the year. The OECD Observer invited Julie Hill to explain the reasons behind this upsurge in concern.

Q: Is there a problem with GMOs?A: It’s very difficult to say, though that’s part of the problem. We really are dealing with something novel here – the ability to move genes from species to species, sometimes in ways that would never be possible with ‘traditional’ plant breeding techniques. That means that as consumers of food, and in the environment, we are being faced with combinations of genes that we have not encountered before. We can of course test these new products in various ways – analyse their toxicity or allergenicity to humans, monitor their growth and behaviour in controlled conditions before releasing them to the wider environment – but we do not have any hard and fast ways of predicting the long-term consequences of altering nature to the degree that genetic manipulation allows. Green Alliance accepts that the likelihood of a problem from any one product is small, but is concerned that an accumulation of subtle effects might affect the environment and health in a way that will be difficult to deal with.Q: What do you think might go wrong in the environment?A: The term ‘superweed’ is often used to express the concern that introduced genes will ‘jump’ from crop plants to wild relatives of the crop, and that the new genes will make the resulting hybrids more vigorous and weedy than either of their parents. This is a possibility, although it is important to bear in mind that not all crops grown in Europe have wild relatives with which they can interbreed. For instance oilseed rape does, wheat and maize do not. Also, any undesirable effects will be very slow to emerge – probably de-cades. A more likely and immediate kind of environmental impact could be from the crop/chemical packages enabled by genetic manipulation - herbicide tolerant crops, for instance, would allow more widespread use of certain weedkillers. The environmental impact of this could be positive, if it obviates the use of more persistant and toxic chemicals. But it could be negative if it means that there are even fewer weeds in fields, and thus less food for insects, small mammals, and in turn, birds. So Green Alliance has always argued for a broad ‘environmental audit’ of GM crops, rather than the narrowly-focussed risk assessments currently undertaken under European regulations.Q: Do you accept that there might be environmental benefits from GMOs?A: Yes, but we need to see the data. If the companies developing genetic technology want their claims to be taken seriously, their analyses of poten-tial benefits must be as rigorous as those required by the regulatory system for risks. It would also help to have their data, on both risks and bene-fits, independently evaluated. Q: Why do the citizens of Europe appear more concerned about GMO food and crops than their US counterparts?A: It is hard to say for definite, but I can suggest some factors. The US regulatory agencies seem to be more open and more trusted. In Europe, the BSE crisis has undermined popular trust in the competence and motivation of scien-tific advisers and their political masters. On the environmental side, the United States has a clearer separation of agriculture and conservation -areas, or ‘wilderness’, and both are vast. In the more crowded countries of Europe, what is left of the environment and wildlife is inextric-ably tied up with agriculture, so trends in agriculture matter. As one UK government advisory agency put it, we want to ensure that GM crops are not ‘the last straw’ for wildlife already -under press-ure from intensive agricult-ure. A further small point – most of Europe has ratified the convention on Biological Diversity – the United States has not.Q: What should organisations such as the OECD do next?A: OECD countries should accept that there are legitimate public health and environmental concerns arising from GMOs. They should support the principle of a comprehensive environmental audit for GM crops – perhaps by putting their own experts on the case. Maybe OECD countries ought to place less emphasis on harmonising their different regulatory approaches and accept that some countries might want the flexibility to impose particular measures to ensure the protection of their environment.Julie Hill is a member of the European Federation of Biotechnology’s Task Group on Public Perceptions of Biotechnology. She is also programme adviser to Green Alliance, an independent, UK-based non-governmental organisation whose mission is to put the environment at the heart of policy-making. Ms. Hill has been on a UK government advisory committee on releases of GMOs – ACRE – for the past nine years. Green Alliance is not opposed to GM technology, but it wants to ensure that the environmental risks are properly assessed, that there is greater transparency in the regulatory system and that the public participates in decision-making.©OECD Observer 216, March 1999


Economic data

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • COP21 Will Get Agreement With Teeth: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on Bloomberg

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.

  • Climate change: “We should not disagree when scientists tell us we have a window of opportunity–10-15 years–to turn this thing around” argues Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • In the long-run, the EU benefits from migration, says OECD Head of International Migration Division Jean-Christophe Dumont.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Catherine Mann, OECD Chief Economist, explains on Bloomberg why "too much bank lending can slow economic growth".
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles

Poll

What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Unemployment
Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming
Other

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2016