Reality Check: The SNP ban on GM foods is good politics but bad science

New EU rules have allowed countries to set their own regulations on certain genetically modified crops. The Scottish rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead has said that the devolved Holyrood government will be first in line to opt out and essentially ban GM crops from north of the border.

Reality Check: The SNP ban on GM foods is good politics but bad science

You’d be forgiven for thinking that science has something to do with this. Banning a food source without scientific backing would be mad, right?

Now, guess how many times the word “science”, “scientists” or even “scientific” comes up in the press release. If you said “zero”, congratulations you old cynic – you’re bang on the money.

“Guess how many times the word ‘science’ appears in the press release. If you said “zero”, congratulations.”

The reason for this omission is that scientific consensus is largely – although not completely – against the Scottish government on this. “Generally, it would be hard to justify a ban on the grounds of safety as GM technology for plant breeding is supported by a global scientific consensus with regard to safety,” explained Professor Anne Glover of the University of Aberdeen, who actually served as the Scottish National Party’s scientific advisor between 2006 and 2011.

The ruling doesn’t currently affect Scotland anyway. Countries that opt in to the GM measures can only work with crops that have been approved by the EU. To date, that only includes maize, which was approved way back in 1998 and isn’t really a Scottish product. That means the Scottish government is banning a product they don’t even grow. Great.

However, a blight-resistant potato is on the way, and should appeal to the “clean green brand” Scotland is so enthusiastic about. As Maurice Moloney from Food Security pointed out: “Potato blight in wet years still decimates the Scottish potato crop and requires frequent spraying of fungicides. For Scotland to deny to its farmers such a critical innovation, and to deny consumers the possibility of reducing pesticide use, is irresponsible.”monsanto_protest

Professor Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, agrees. “In the short term, this is a zero-risk, eye-catching announcement that will have no impact whatsoever, because there are currently no approved GM crops available that are suitable for cultivation in Scotland,” she explained. However, they could find themselves at “a serious disadvantage” in the long run.  

That’s especially true when farmers south of the border start using GM crops to give themselves a competitive advantage. “One side of the border may adopt biotechnology, but, just across the River Tweed, farmers won’t be allowed to,” predicted Andrew McCornick, vice president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFU Scotland), in The Scotsman. “How are these farmers going to be capable of competing in the same market?”

The Scottish government thinks that the “clean and green” branding will pick up the slack. Well, it might do a bit, but this is also of dubious scientific merit. “It’s time governments stopped equating an anti-GM stance with care for the environment,” said Dr Joe Perry, former chair of the European Food Safety Authority. “GM crops can be of benefit to the environment, if regulated sensitively.” Indeed, scientists have recently created a type of rice that not only boosts output by 50%, but also decreases greenhouse-gas emissions by 90 to 99%.  

“For now, that means the Scottish government is banning a product they don’t even grow. Great.”

This view is echoed by Professor Glover: “With appropriate choices, GM technology can offer one approach to sustainable farming by reducing the need for chemical inputs, which benefits the consumer, farmer and environment.”  

By turning its back on this kind of advancement, Scotland is made to look slightly backwards. As Food Security’s Moloney concluded: “Positioning a nation in this way gives it an international reputation for being a science-free zone, not the modern Scotland that it aspires to be.”pig_eating_soya

There’s another small matter for Scotland to consider: even if they’re right to be wary of GM foods, the ban won’t do much to help. Why? As New Scientist points out, even with a ban in place, Scottish farmers will still be able to feed imported GM foods to their livestock. The Scottish government has no idea how much of the 34 million tonnes of GM soya animal feed imported by the EU ends up in Scotland. “It’s very hard to source soya that’s not GM, as the shippers refuse to guarantee that it’s GM-free,” explained Ian Sands of the NFU Scotland.

“Even with a ban in place, Scottish farmers will still be able to feed imported GM foods to their livestock.”

So, with all this in mind, why proudly announce a ban?

There are a couple of possibilities here, but, given you’re probably the kind of cynic who answered “zero” to my earlier question, let me offer you a pet theory. Strap in, it gets a little political…

The Scottish government is the Scottish National Party, or SNP. You may remember them as the party that campaigned for independence from the United Kingdom last year, narrowly losing before wiping out Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland in May’s General Election. The Conservative Party remained untouched, but, as the old joke goes, there are more giant pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland – making the latter more of an endangered species than the former.snp

The SNP’s ultimate aim remains independence from the United Kingdom, so it’s in their interests to appear like they’re completely different from Westminster and to set their own rules. The two largest parties in England – the Conservatives and Labour – both support the use of GM foods.

“Cynical me wonders whether the SNP would be fully in favour of GM crops, if Westminster was united against them.”

The UK government has sensibly said that what Scotland does is its own business, but Scotland has less say on other issues. The more differences there are between the countries, the greater the hope for a second referendum and that more of its citizens will cross the “yes” box. Cynical me wonders whether the SNP would be fully in favour of GM crops, if Westminster was united against them. You can bet this won’t be the last public difference between the two nations.

So, the GM food ban seems to be largely symbolic in the short term, economically questionable in the long run and blissfully ignorant of general scientific consensus. On the plus side, it’s good politics. Ho-hum.  

[UPDATE – 18/08/15: Since writing this piece, an open letter from 28 research organisations and universities has been sent to the SNP’s rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead expressing the signatories are “extremely concerned” about the ban’s potential for “negative impact”.

Signatories include the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Science Council, Sense about Science, the Roslin Institute and the European Academies Science Advisory Council. You can read the letter here.]

Images via Gordon Robertson, William Murphy, United Soybean Board, and The SNP used under Creative Commons.

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