Over the next few decades we need to increase global food production to meet increasing demand from an expanding population, and we must do this as the global climate changes and natural resources such as fossil fuels and fresh water become limiting.
What we do
At the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory we believe that to achieve this, a variety of approaches to crop improvement including plant breeding and genetic modification (GM) are essential.
Agricultural sciences have already led to significant improvements in food production and the John Innes Centre contributed to the crop genetic improvements that underpinned the green revolution. We have a unique historical perspective on genetic research and its application to horticulture and agriculture and we have played a key role in the development of GM, not only in the improvement of gene transfer techniques but also in studying genetically modified plants in glasshouse and field trials.
The safety of genetic modification
We see no science-based causes for concern with GM other than those issues that could arise from any genetic change that affects the performance of plants and microbes, for instance via breeding. The safety of commercial GM products is governed by an extensive regulatory framework, backed by years of careful testing of the technology and its products. GM crops have been grown extensively around the world for 20 years and there have been no human health problems resulting from consumption of GM products.
GM crops should continue to be regulated and extensively trialled before adoption and eventual commercialisation. However, crops developed using GM and other genetic techniques should now be regulated according to the new traits introduced, rather than how they are made. Many years of application of the precautionary principle have shown GM methods themselves to be safe, and we would welcome a reduced and more evidence-based level of regulation.
The future of genetic modification
Scientific breakthroughs are required to meet global food production challenges and we will continue to support and use all appropriate technologies, including GM, in combination with breeding, to generate the crop varieties we need. New traits such as disease resistance, improved nutrition, reduced seed loss and increased seed size, are being worked on at the John Innes Centre, The Sainsburys Laboratory and sister institutes. We aim to develop these new crops in collaboration with industry and in a new public good GM framework. This will test promising traits in UK conditions to provide data for decision-making about which traits are worth adopting.
We anticipate that the GM traits that are likely to be adopted first in Europe will be labeled to help consumer choice. However, as most commodity crops, such as soybeans and maize for animal feed, are already GM it would not be helpful to consumers to label the multitude of products derived from these.
We endorse the recent letter from the Council for Science and Technology to the Prime Minister on new approaches to GM crop regulation, as the promises of GM and other crop improvement technologies are not being realized because the science-based recommendations of the European Food Standards Agency are not usually followed.
We welcome the recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which states that GM crops that have passed the European risk assessment process could be used by member states. This change in regulation, if implemented will help farmers and producers secure future food supplies and reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture.