It has been announced today that European regulations governing the production of genetically modified foods are to be investigated in a cross-party parliamentary inquiry led by the Science and Technology Committee. Critics of the EU rules have long made heavy weather of the commission’s use of the so-called precautionary principle, but from my perspective, as one who is cautiously pro-GM, they may be misrepresenting the principle for political ends.
In general terms, the precautionary principle states that actions should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous. Whilst the precautionary principle may be dear to those of a tree-hugging persuasion, it is based on quantifiable risk assessment. One should question its implementation, but the consequences of abandoning the principle are potentially catastrophic. For example, no-one in their right mind would wish to see its use restricted in pharmaceutical research and development.
What is it with GM in the EU? The Science and Technology Committee is concerned with what it sees as the potentially adverse impact of EU rules on agricultural innovation and Britain’s economic competitiveness. And rightly so, as that is part of the committee’s job. But the inquiry terms of reference are loaded, in a way that puts politics ahead of scientific evidence…
- Are current EU and UK regulations intended to assess the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods fit for purpose? If not, why not?
- How have EU and UK regulations on GM foods affected the UK’s international competitiveness?
- Does the current EU and UK regulatory framework allow for GM foods to effectively contribute to the delivery of the UK Agricultural Technologies Strategy? If not, why not?
- What are the particular barriers to the conduct of research on GM foods in the UK?
- Is the EU’s application of the precautionary principle in relation to GM foods appropriate? Does the EU recognise and handle properly the concepts of hazard and risk?
- Are there other examples of EU regulation in which the precautionary principle has not been applied appropriately?
Here we have reference to appropriate application of the precautionary principle, but elsewhere in the inquiry announcement there are unsubstantiated assertions as to the safety of GM organisms: assertions which remain the subject of scientific investigation. Much of the evidence is clear on this point, but some of it is inconclusive. Responsible policymakers will take heed of such uncertainty, and act judiciously. The matter is considerably more important than the curvature of bananas or provenance of Cheddar cheese.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and in particular which expert witnesses are called to give evidence at the inquiry. I just hope that the scientists called to Portcullis House have sufficient political nous to deal with the grandstanding we are likely to see from the MPs there assembled.