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By Tom McLeish, Durham University; Phil Macnaghten, Durham University, and Susana Carro-Ripalda, Durham University

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The UK Council for Science and Technology recently called on prime minister David Cameron to reassess EU rules on GM crops. Two days later the Observer published an editorial bluntly declaring: “There’s no choice; we must grow GM crops now”. There is a high risk that a new round of the shouting match that mired the debate 15 years ago will begin again, with little real progress.

But research since the first failure of the debate on GM crops in the EU suggests there is a better way. Our GM-Futuros project has recently explored the GM debates in depth at national and local levels in India, Mexico and Brazil – highlighting some stark lessons for the EU and UK. Quality engagement with the public is key.

Both of the recent UK publications call for a positive move towards GM agricultural technology. Ostensibly this is driven by forecasts of global population increases and a shortfall in food supply from current agricultural land by 2050. The Council for Science and Technology letter also appeals to the current loss of economic opportunity in the UK from present over-restrictive EU regulations. The Observer piece is dismissive of objections: “Thirty years ago, it could be argued that we should proceed cautiously because of potential health dangers. That argument is no longer acceptable.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Advert for GM corn variety in Brazil (Susana Carro-Ripalda).

As concerns about global food security are on the rise, there are many questions as to how the world will face growing demands for a sustainable food supply. While poverty and food distribution seem to underlie many of the challenges regarding food security, biotechnology in the form of genetically modified seeds could continue to play an increasing role in how food is grown and traded in both developed and less developed countries.

Does patenting seeds create new risks to food security or provide a way of securing the world food supply through centralisation? Are we simply looking at a new way of meeting the demands placed upon agriculture or a new way for chemical corporations such as Monsanto, Dupont, Dow Chemical and others to place new demands on society? Most importantly, where does this leave farmers and the communities they support?

Read the rest of this entry »

Men winnowing rice in southern India. UN

GM food is perhaps one of the most controversial topics in the history of science and technology.  Genetically-modified foods have been restricted by some countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America, but have also been accepted by others within the same regions such as Brazil, China, Spain and India, and are widespread in the US and Canada.  What is often left out of the GM debate is an articulate understanding of the cultural and social contexts that have played a major role in making GM technology so controversial in the first place, especially whether or not it should be used to feed the world.

In many parts of the world the role GM will play in agriculture in the future will depend largely on how it is perceived culturally.  The science — nuts and bolts of GM — is obviously important for understanding its possibilities and risks, but it too is grounded within its own political and social contexts.  Whether it is genetically modified seeds patented by multinational corporations or the attempt to engineer drought resistant crops, GM technology and human values are intertwined.  GMFuturos, a new multidisciplinary research project, will explore some of these complex multiple framings of GM and contribute to scientific and policy debates surrounding GM technology. Read more

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