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News and Comment

Making Sense of GM

9 February 2009

Sense About Science has published a public quide on what is the genetic modification of plants and why are scientists doing it?

Making Sense of GM

Making Sense of GM: What is the genetic modification of plants and why are scientists doing it? - 9 February 2009

In Making Sense of GM, scientists and agriculturalists are launching a fresh public discussion about GM: one that puts GM back into the context of developing plant breeding and that responds to the public’s questions and misconceptions. Publicly funded work in particular has struggled against misconceptions about Frankenstein foods, vandalism and a costly regulatory burden.

There have been more Google searches on genetically modified crops in the past two years in the UK than anywhere else in the world. While there have been over a trillion GM meals consumed and nearly 120 million hectares of GM crops grown, hardly any of that was in Europe, still less in the UK. It’s not surprising that people have questions about why that is, what GM is, what it does, whether they are eating it and what would happen if they did.

The guide examines the way GM has been debated in the past, and presents commentary from scientists, who say a new perspective needs to take into account:

  • The limitations of older selective breeding techniques that GM was developed to overcome.
  • Advances in molecular breeding since 2000, which mean GM is even less of a distinct area of plant breeding than before and it makes little sense to talk about it separately.
  • Society’s requirements for improvement in plants, ranging from the main commercial crops, where yields must increase to feed people but with less environmental impact, to localised issues such as combating the fungal destruction of banana and plantain crops in Uganda and improving the shelf-life of Kentish apples to reduce imports.
  • The importance of assessing a new plant - GM or not - according to what farmers need, where it is to be grown and its likely impact, rather than according to how it was developed.

In the guide, the heads of the independent, public-sector research centres in the UK call for a discussion about GM that helps the public and policy makers to judge what crop technologies could contribute to global food supply and to the management of natural resource and changes in climate. They and other scientists explain what GM is and the research that uses it.

Comments about the guide:

Professor Sir David King, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford: “The global demand for food is expected to increase by 50 per cent by 2030. This will be achieved through the development of both biotic crops, resistent to disease, and abiotic crops, resistant to drought, salinity or flooding, using modern biotechnology techniques, including GM. The question is whether or not Europe will be contributing to this process, or hindering it, as it is at present.”

Professor Les Firbank, Head of North Wyke Research: “The GM debate became a surrogate for concerns about other, larger issues of globalisation, food security and safety, intensive agriculture and the sanctity of nature. The growing global demand for food is re-opening the debate in the UK; this time GM should be seen for what it is - one of several ways to develop new crops, each of which should be considered on its own merits and risks. The question is not, do we want GM or not? Rather, what kind of agriculture and food systems can provide the food and environment we need?”

Professor Lord May of Oxford FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford: “This important guide addresses the doctrinaire, and largely fact-free, objections to so-called GM crops (which do not seem to realise we have been genetically modifying crops for millennia). The guide aims to refocus the debate on the really important question of who sets the agenda for the use of these techniques, in order to create the “Doubly Green Revolution” needed to feed tomorrow’s world.”

Professor Ian Crute, Director, Rothamsted Research: “In the last decade, momentum towards publicly-funded improvement of UK crops based on GM technology has sadly been lost. And unless we make changes, the costly framework for regulatory approval that now exists in the EU means that a valuable technology is likely to become the exclusive province of wealthy multinational corporations. However, if we overcome prejudice and misinformation, I fully believe that we can arrive at a discussion that appreciates the role of crop science, including GM, in delivering the increases in yield and quality that society is looking for.”

Professor Chris Lamb FRS, Director, John Innes Centre: “It feels as if we are being given a second chance to explain the potential of genetic modification and as a society we need to get it right this time. Genetic modification of crops is a safe technology. It has the potential to be a powerful tool for improving the sustainability of agriculture and for helping to provide global food security. We are increasingly reassured that plant research will be judged on the products it can deliver, rather than the technology used. For example, blight resistant potatoes, or fruits and vegetables with an enhanced ability to fight chronic disease, such as our purple tomatoes.”

Professor Jonathan Jones FRS, Head of Laboratory, The Sainsbury Laboratory, John Innes Centre: “At the Sainsbury Lab we are interested in plant disease and its control. Wild crop relatives carry an immense diversity of genes for resistance to crop diseases. These genes can be bred into crops - this is either slow or very slow, and the gene you want is usually linked to “bad genes” that reduce crop performance - or the good genes could be cloned and moved into crops with GM methods. First examples with potato late blight resistance look very promising. This approach provides the foundation for a more sustainable agriculture with reduced agrichemical applications, and this document helps people understand why they have nothing to fear from the GM methods involved.”

Professor Peter Gregory, Director, Scottish Crop Research Institute: “The threat of GM crops being destroyed is causing crop scientists in the UK to either stop work on developing disease-resistant cultivars or to look overseas for collaborations.”

Professor David White, Director, Institute of Food Research: “A sensible discussion of genetic modification issues is important to IFR science. Not only is the approach an outstanding research tool but it also offers exciting options for the development of foods to enhance gut health and protect against diseases such as cancer.”

Dr Philip Taylor, molecular biologist and arable farmer: “Darwin would not have been surprised by GM; he showed that all living organisms are inter-related. GM technology uses this fact and enables genes to be moved across species boundaries in what may seem like an astonishing manner but DNA is DNA, no matter where it originally came from. We need to ensure that this technology is put to use for the whole of mankind and not rendered inconsequential by powerful lobbies who have thrown a plethora of objections in its path, none of which really stack up.”

Dr Wendy Harwood, Strategic Research Scientist, John Innes Centre: “Agricultural associations, teachers, local U3A and other groups regularly ask us to give talks. Their main interest is in what GM is, and the work going on here at JIC.”

Ellen Raphael, Director UK, Sense About Science: “Farmers and governments want plant research to come up with many answers: from finding bigger yields in shrinking environments to addressing multiple-resistance to weed-killers. They want answers that work in less predictable climates and for more people. Looking at the debate so far, we don’t seem to have much of that picture, particularly on the use of GM. Sense About Science is pleased to publish Making Sense of GM, which talks through some of the shrill debates and misinformation of old, but leaves them for a much more useful look at where GM fits into the development of plant breeding.”

Professor Joyce Tait, Scientific Adviser, ESRC Innogen Centre: “Past discussions about genetically modified plants have led to sterile confrontations that haven’t got across the science surrounding the development of genetically modified plants. A wide and open discussion in the public domain will contribute to the more accurate framing of these technologies in the public mind.”


The guide Making Sense of GM is published by Sense About Science with the kind assistance of the BBSRC, Genetics Society, Institute of Biology, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and The Lawes Agricultural Trust

For hard copies of the guide please fill in this form or email

For further information please contact 0207 478 4380 or email

Coming soon: timeline of plant breeding developments, additional quotes from contributors and list of useful resources

Links to coverage

TODAY programme - Monday 9th February 2009 0722 - Pre-records by science correspondent Tom Feilden explaining what is in the report, Making Sense of GM. Listen here 0837 - Prof Ian Crute, a contributor to the guide, and Peter Melchett, policy director of the organic farming group the Soil Association, discuss if the Britain is ready for a more rational debate about the merits of GM crops. Listen here

BBC Radio Oxford - Monday 9th February 2009 Prof Chris Leaver is interviewed by BBC Radio Oxford. Listen here

BBC Oxford - special web-only programme Includes an interview with Prof Chris Leaver Listen here

Farmers’ Guardian - Tuesday 10th February 2009 Scientists launch new GM guide

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