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Time to sort the facts from the fiction on GM crops

There has been some correspondence back and forth in this newspaper recently about the thorny issue of GM crops.

There has been some correspondence back and forth in this newspaper recently about the thorny issue of GM crops.

Genetic modification became a commercial reality in the mid-1990s and, since then, few topics seem to have generated so much misinformation and mud-slinging.

The scientific evidence is clear; GM crops currently approved are as safe as any other variety of the same crop.

Attempts to "prove" otherwise are a clear example of anti-science bias, with activists seizing on anything which appears to support their firmly-held opinion and being wilfully blind to the vast bulk of evidence which clearly contradicts them.

It's true that genetic modification is not a silver bullet which will guarantee food security. But it's also true that the steady, long-term increases in yield from more conventional breeding techniques is now plateauing, putting future food security at risk.

GM crops offer further ways to produce bigger harvests from the same land, and we would be foolish to turn away from them because of pressure from campaigners.>

Unfortunately, to some of these campaigners, the end is more important than the means.

These include attacking the messenger rather than putting forward rational arguments. Supporters of biotechnology have their integrity questioned and there have been unwarranted attacks on the first (and, so far, only) EU Chief Scientist, the well-respected and eminent Professor Anne Glover.

Appointed by the Barroso commission, she stepped down as they left office and new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has not yet even said whether the position will still exist.

In the meantime, she was criticised for supporting GM crops and describing opposition to them as "a form of madness".

Admittedly, this was fairly colourful language, but it was the opinion of an expert scientist based on her understanding of the evidence.

Maybe I'm being naive, but it seems to me that an adviser is required to advise to the best of their ability rather than pander to self-appointed representatives of the people.

If not, it's simply a case of he who shouts the loudest getting his way, with science going by the board.

Winston Churchill famously wanted scientists to be "on tap, not on top". But there is a strong trend today towards wanting tame scientists who give the "right" answers rather than objective advice.

Failure to appoint a new EU Chief Scientist would give a bad message about the value of science in a modern society.

Opposition to GM crops is part of this wider anti-science trend.

It represents a seemingly wilful desire to turn the clock back to pre-Enlightenment times, where belief trumps hard evidence. The campaign has successfully kept most European farmers from growing GM crops, but a newly-agreed compromise could change that.

Under this, member states will be expected to give Europe-wide approval for new varieties which have had a positive safety assessment, but in return will have the legal right to ban their own farmers from growing them, without any science-based justification.

This is hardly a satisfactory situation, but at least it may give Scottish farmers an opportunity to grow GM potatoes or cereals if they are approved.

In the meantime, while European arable farmers are denied access to a technology with such great potential, livestock farmers rely on imports of GM soya from Brazil to feed their animals economically.

Genetic modification is also widely used in other sectors. Some food processes, including cheese-making, rely on enzymes produced by modified micro-organisms.

Other enzymes are being used in lower-energy, more efficient processes in the chemical industry, which reduce waste and produce higher yields.

And the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly making new drugs using the technology, offering improved treatments for a range of diseases.

European farming is the sector losing out. More than eight million farmers in countries around the globe are using GM crops to make their farms more efficient and reduce their impact on the environment.

If politicians had the courage to listen to scientific advice rather than the voices of campaigners, Scotland's farmers could join them.

Martin Livermore of Scientific Alliance Scotland.