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Leon Kaye headshot

The Royal Society Launches GMO Guide for U.K. Consumers

By Leon Kaye

While the global business sector and environmental groups wait to see if Bayer will acquires Monsanto, the world’s oldest scientific academy launched a guide it says can educate consumers in the United Kingdom about GMOs. The Royal Society, which for 356 years has covered everything from farming to ethics to climate change, explored what it says are the 18 common questions Britons ask about GMO technology.

According to the Royal Society, such a discussion is necessary in the wake of a recent Ipsos MORI poll, which concluded that half of the U.K.’s population does not feel well informed about GMOs, and at least 6 percent admitted that they had never heard of them. The study also comes at a time when the U.K. is close to voting on the controversial “Brexit” referendum, which coincides with the ongoing trend of more European countries exerting their sovereignty in part by banning the cultivation of GMO crops within their borders.

Claiming that the contentious debate over GMOs is largely due to the lack of informed scientific discussion, the Royal Society says it will complement its guide on GMOs with public panels that will be held across the U.K. this summer and fall. This road show will start almost a year after Scotland took advantage of its greater autonomy within the U.K. by banning GMO crops last August as a way to keep the country “clean and green.”

In making the case for a public discussion of GMOs, the Royal Society highlighted a recent study issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in the U.S., which assessed over 900 published studies. That study concluded there is no evidence GMOs are harmful to human health, the environment or biodiversity on farms. The 400-plus page document, however, posited its analysis with some environmental concerns, including the finding that the use of some GMO crops developed to resist the insecticide glyphosate (which Monsanto markets as Roundup) caused some weeds to develop a resistance to that chemical.

The Royal Society also pointed to the World Bank’s suggestion that the world will have to produce at least 50 percent more food if it will be able to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have also suggested that GMOs need to be part of the discussion over food security if an additional 3 billion people are to be fed by mid-century.

It is largely because of the arguments presented by intergovernmental organizations and academics alike that GMOs came on the Royal Society’s radar. Back in 2002, the organization recognized consumers' and activists' concerns about GMOs, and that issues related to the public debate had to go beyond the science. Nevertheless, the Royal Society also insisted that “the valuable potential and current impact of plant biotechnology on the quality of food and its importance in the development of new crops” also merited further research and development of GMOs.

Seven years later, in the wake of the global surge in commodities prices and concern over food security in much of the world, a 2009 study issued by the Royal Society suggested that among the various technologies needed to continue to feed the world, “the largest improvements stand to be gained where both the ‘seeds and breeds’ and management aspects of a system are optimized.”

Despite the Royal Society’s attempts to answer questions over GMOs in a science-based, straightforward matter, do not expect this guide to quell any fears or criticisms of biotechnology and GMOs anytime soon. The arguments over GMOs are akin to what has gone on with the climate change debate; many people reached their conclusions not by the facts over the science, but by ideology.

Witness the Scottish NGO Soil Association, which interpreted the National Academies’ analysis of GMOs as proof that GMOs are “an old and failing technology.” Never mind the discussion over yields, which the National Academies found “do not show a significant signature of genetic-engineering technology on the rate of yield increase.” Despite the National Academies’ analysis that the lack of sizable yield increases “does not mean that such increases will not be realized in the future or that current [GMO] traits are not beneficial to farmers,” the Soil Association has slammed the door on GMOs. Expect other organizations and activists to take the same approach, which is fear-mongering over reason, to any meaningful discussion on GMOs.

Image credit: Royal Society/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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