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Find out what you missed at 'GM Food: What's the Problem?'

last modified Oct 19, 2017 12:42 PM
GM Food: What’s the Problem? In an event hosted by Cambridge Global Food Security on 17 Oct 2017, experts from Cambridge University presented the facts about GM and answered questions from the public.
Find out what you missed at 'GM Food: What's the Problem?'

Prof Sir David Baulcombe speaking at the event

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been promoted as a solution to feeding a growing global population. But they remain highly controversial, with many countries placing restrictions or bans on their use, and citizens calling for labelling of foods containing GMOs. Several different types of GM crop have been cultivated in North and South America and Asia, but in Europe there are concerns about the technology in EU member states and only one GM crop has ever been commercially grown.

Professor Sir David Baulcombe, an eminent plant scientist, first published his research on genetic modification (GM) in 1985. He described GM as a technology that can help address the issue of feeding the world’s growing population under pressures including climate change; it can help to mitigate the problem of sustainable food production. In his opening talk he outlined some of the many things GM can do, from making crops resistant to disease, to giving crops a higher nutrient content. He is frustrated that most potential applications have not yet been tested in the field.

Dr Ksenia Gerasimova approaches GM from a social science perspective. She has spoken to farmers, NGOs and policy-makers in several countries and often sees a heated reaction, both from those who support and those who oppose the technology. Despite the scientific evidence claiming its safety, many prefer to form their own views. It was once labelled ‘Frankenfood’, but Ksenia says she has allegedly eaten GM food herself and is still alive and well.

Why does GM food concern us? Opening the floor to audience questions highlighted some of the many issues. A selection of these questions follows.


Q: Could a standard field of crops growing next to a field of GM crops get ‘infected’ by the GM? How can we control this?

A: Yes it could, but this could happen with conventionally bred crops (the standard crops) too. With GM technology you are inserting a single gene, conferring a beneficial trait, into your crop plant. Conventionally bred crops involve mixing 20,000 genes from one crop with 20,000 genes from another, with far more unknown outcomes. No GM plants should be released for growing in a field if there are concerns about what happens if the genes cross out into other plants.

Q: Might big companies control GM seeds and tie in small-holder farmers (eg. in Africa) to buying from them every year?

A: There’s no reason why GM technology can’t be developed by small companies too. The technology is getting cheaper, and not all GM is about making more money from crops. GM technology is highly compatible with small businesses too, and it’s easy to deploy.

Q: Are the concerns about regulatory approval for GM making it harder for smaller companies to be involved?

A: It is more expensive to do the safety testing, necessary before the GM crop can be released as a food crop, than to develop the GM crop in the first place. And many organisations, including supermarkets, know that being involved with GM food could be a reputational risk due to public perceptions. The cost of regulatory approval does exclude small and medium sized enterprises because it is so expensive. There is probably scope for revision of the regulatory process so that it is appropriate for the trait in the plant and the source of the gene that is being manipulated.

Q: Is there any research into the health effects of GM food?

A: There have been several studies into the health effects of GM food and the consensus is that there is no intrinsic hazard in GM technology. Despite the restrictions on GM crops in the UK, imported GM soybean and maize are already being used as animal feed here, and GM cotton is used to make our clothes. There’s no evidence that this is detrimental to our health. Everything we do involves an element of the unknown. But the potential for unknowns is orders of magnitude higher from conventional breeding because of the numbers of genes involved. In fact some conventionally bred crops did produce toxic substances. So the concerns are less for GM crops than for conventional breeding.

Q: Have GM foods been eaten for long enough (in countries where they are allowed) to know if there is any long-term effect on health?

A: It is hard to tease out the effects of eating GM food from all the other things in our diet that might cause harm eg. pesticide residues. Although GM food is banned in Europe, people living in the US have been eating GM foods for years – has there been any effect on them?

Q: Will Brexit affect the restrictions on growing GM crops in Britain?

A: GM crops have divided opinion in Europe, but the UK government is among those in favour, and wanted to reconsider the regulatory framework in 2014. But it’s unlikely we’ll suddenly be allowed to grow GM crops as we’ll still want to trade with the rest of Europe, even though GM is already in the food supply chain through its use as animal feed.

Q: How easy is this technology? Could terrorists use it to sabotage our food supply?

A: In Russia this is how the opposition builds their argument. In reality there are lots of much easier ways for terrorists to sabotage our food.



This event was organised by Jacqueline Garget, Coordinator of Cambridge Global Food Security, as part of the University of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas 2017. The speakers were Professor Sir David Baulcombe, Department of Plant Sciences; Dr Ksenia Gerasimova, Centre of Development Studies; and the Chair was Dr Shailaja Fennell, Centre of Development Studies.

A podcast with these academics and Dr David Nally is coming soon.

If you are interested to know more about the GM debate, you might like to come to a screening of the new film, Food Evolution, on 14 Nov 2017. More details here.