A new way to talk about biotechnology
By Sven Ove Hansson, Programme Director
Mistra Biotech is a research programme, and not surprisingly there are different opinions among researchers in the programme on some of the issues concerning agricultural biotechnology. But I believe that we are all tired of sweeping statements such as “All GMOs are dangerous” or “All GMOs are safe” that are often heard in the public debate. As researchers, we want each question about the uses of biotechnology to be carefully analysed on the basis of the best scientific evidence.
In April 2014, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) adopted a new GMO policy that is quite interesting from this point of view. Not surprisingly, the Society has strict environmental demands on the products that are the result of genetic modification, but they also emphasize that assessments have to be made “in each particular case” and that both risks and advantages should be evaluated. Currently, they require “extensive risk assessments” for all genetically modified cultivars. However, when more experience has been gained “it should be possible to develop rules for assessing and managing genetically modified organisms in about the same way as industrial chemicals. Some can be used with conventional risk assessment and risk management, others with precaution as the leading principle, while yet others should be subject to strict restrictions, just like serious environmental poisons.”
This policy document gives some indications of how the SSNC views different types of cultivars. They are critical of the use of herbicide-tolerant crops, and judging by the argumentation this also applies to herbicide-tolerant crops that are not genetically modified. On the other hand, they are in principle positive to cultivars with resistance to Phytophthora infestans (the pathogen that causes potato late blight). The reason for their positive attitude in the latter case is that such cultivars are expected to reduce the use of fungicides without bringing any other environmental problems. The Society also foresees that some genetically modified industrial crops can have “positive applications”, but they emphasize the need for careful analysis and an adequate regulatory system in these cases as well.
There might be different views on the merits and demerits of these and other biotechnological products, but what is important here is the way in which GMOs are discussed in the policy. The SSNC issues no sweeping statements about all GMOs one way or the other. Instead, they promote a careful, science-based analysis in each particular case. And that is exactly what we researchers want policy-makers to do. It is our task as researchers to provide decision-makers with the best possible scientific information on the potential risks and the potential benefits of different biotechnological products. Naturally, we hope that policy-makers will make use of this information and base their decisions on the best available scientific information. This might not lead to complete agreement, but it should lead to a sensible discussion in which all participants make use of the common knowledge base that science provides. Politicians on both sides of the GMO debate have something to learn from the SSNC on how to conduct discussions on the uses of biotechnology.