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Calls for GM plants to be licensed
Genetically modified plants should be licensed in the same way as medicinal drugs under a sweeping reform to the regulatory system that hands powers currently held by the European Union back to individual countries, a new report has said.
There is a scientific consensus based on years of research to show GM technology is safe and the current system acts as an "impediment" to developing crops that could help future global food security, the paper for the Council for Science and Technology (CST) stated.
It said decisions should be based instead on the genetic make-up and purpose of individual products, with current regulator the European Food Standards Agency reduced to an advisory role, giving member states power to licence or block development through a body similar to drug agency Nice.
The CST has now written to Prime Minister David Cameron urging him to push for changes to be made by the EU.
Professor Sir David Baulcombe, head of plant sciences at the University of Cambridge, who led the team behind the report, said: "Most concerns about GM crops have nothing to do with the technology, which is as safe as conventional breeding.
"They are more often related to the way that the technology is applied and whether it is beneficial for small-scale farmers or for the environment.
"To address these concerns, we need to have an evidence-based regulatory process that focuses on traits, independent of the technology that has been used to develop them."
The report was written by scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Reading, the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich and Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire.
It called for a rebalance of the system to look at benefits from GM as well as risks, with regulation to be based on "traits" in altered plants allowing decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis.
It backed the European Academies Science Advisory Council, an umbrella group for 29 science bodies including the Royal Society, which had already said there was no basis for the current system to remain in place.
The report also called for more public debate and a new programme of independent research called PubGM to field test GM crops designed for the "public good" and determine which traits should be developed and the various impacts they might have on farming and the environment.
There should also be a new regime of trials in the UK, it said, because it was the most accurate way of determining how plants would grow if sown commercially here.
The letter to the PM was signed by Sir Mark Walport, the Government's chief scientific adviser and CST chairman, and his co-chairwoman Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell.
It warned against over-selling the benefits of GM but added: "The longer the EU continues to oppose GM whilst the rest of the world adopts it, the greater the risk that EU agriculture will become uncompetitive, especially as more GM crops and traits are commercialised successfully elsewhere."
Sir Mark said the CST did not want to reduce regulation but make it "fit for purpose", because the politics surrounding GM had made the current EU system "dysfunctional".
He said: " We tend to treat technologies such as GM as all-or-nothing but they are not.
"It is not the technology, the technology can be used for all sorts of purposes.
"What we need to do is look at each product individually - what gene is it you are using, what organism and why?
"Then you need to make rational decisions based on that and on the cultivation evidence."
Report co-author Professor Jonathan Jones, from the Sainsbury Laboratory, likened regulation to early cars having to go slowly behind people waving a red flag.
He said: " With respect to our technology... I have been making GM crops for 31 years, we know what the (previously) unknowns are, we know which ones to be concerned about, we know what to do to ensure bad unknowns, if there are any, don't end up in varieties that farmers plant.
"There is too much regulation."
The Government has already shown its support for GM crops.
Last June, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson called for changes to regulation, saying the crops could have important environmental benefits and help save lives in poorer countries.
In a speech at Rothamsted Research, home to the only active GM crop trial in the UK, he warned that British farmers and scientists were being forced to operate with "one hand tied behind their back".
Today, a Defra spokeswoman said: "GM offers significant economic and environmental benefits for the UK, which is why the Government is working to unblock the gridlock in Europe to ensure that safe GM crops can be grown here."
Environmental groups criticised the report.
Vicki Hird, Friends of the Earth's senior food campaigner, said: "GM crops have been hugely over-hyped.
"Despite decades of research, they have failed to deliver the benefits they have promised, and have been an expensive distraction from real solutions to the challenges we face.
"Our food production system needs a radical overhaul to ensure everyone has access to healthy, affordable food that doesn't wreck the planet - but putting more power into the hands of multi-nationals is not the answer."
Dr Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, said the proposal could lead to British farmers losing access to EU and other markets.
She added: "Consumers could also lose access to the GM-free foods that many want to eat.
"To be convincing, any regulatory system must prevent the serious harm to wildlife and farming caused by GM crops in the USA, including a crash in the population of Monarch butterflies and an explosion in herbicide-resistant superweeds.
"Tougher, not weaker, food safety regulation is needed if consumers are to be persuaded that GM foods are safe to eat."