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

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