Changing the tune on GM

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The GM debate at times seems much like the Hokey Cokey (or Pokey, if you’re US-based). There’s been a lot of putting in, some putting out, and quite a lot of shaking things all about, but as of yet, there hasn’t really been a turnaround and definitely no ra, ra, ra!

Tesco’s chief executive has said that consumer attitudes are changing, and that the retailer may be ready to get behind GM. Are we finally seeing a thawing of attitudes towards GM in the UK?

If last week’s statements by Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of British retail giant Tesco, carry any weight (and I’d be inclined to suggest they do), then a turnaround on GM may be coming, particularly in the UK.

Genetic modification of plants, and consumption of foods made from these crops, is a highly divisive issue. But it is time to re-launch the debate and focus purely on the science. Let’s leave the mud slinging and scare-mongering to the side for the moment.

Sir Terry uttered some important sentences at the annual City Food Lecture in London last week. “In some ways it may have been a failure of us all actually to stand behind the science,”​ he said.

The Tesco boss also told attendees that there was a sense that the scientific evidence was always clear, but hesitation by governments and retailers to endorse the crops certainly hasn’t helped things.

For the chief executive of one of the world’s heavyweight retailers to make such statements, one must assume that Sir Terry has seen some stats that suggest a sea change.

Could a retailer of Tesco’s size ‘force’ GM foods on consumers? Of course not! Consumers vote with their wallets and their feet, and if they’re not ready for Tesco-endorsed GM-containing foods, then they’ll be off to Sainsbury, or Waitrose, or they‘d jump on a ferry and do their grocery shopping in France!

What we need is some clarification. For starters, I’d like to see the facts, the stats, and the surveys that indicate that consumers are now warming to the plants.

And if attitudes are changing, why? Is it from seeing that the consumer dollar now buys you less food than before?

At a time of rising commodity and food prices, and food scarcity, can we really afford GM prejudice? We need crops that can grow in salty soils, crops that can resist drought, crops that provide micronutrients to populations at risk of malnutrition.

I’m not a pro-GM campaigner, preferring to take a more wait-and-see approach, and from what I’ve seen so far, good could come out of transgenic technology.

Researchers around the world are working towards plants that give us the same omega-3 as we find in fish. Danish scientists are also sharing the anti-cancer goodness we find in broccoli with other plants. We can also find anthocyanin-enriched tomatoes, vitamin A-rich rice, and other such nutritionally-enhanced plants.

Sir Terry concurred about the nutritional potential, adding that there seemed to be a growing appreciation by people that GM was likely to play “a vital role in feeding the world, in adapting to climate change and indeed in producing some of these more nutritional products – foods – that people will need”.

On the flip side, and often cited by anti-GM campaigners, are reports of certain strains posing potential health problems in rats and mice. There are also reports of GM harvests finding their way into non-GM distribution channels. And the big question concerns the long-term effects of GM, if there are any. We probably will not know this for 50 or 100 years.

But let’s put logistics and pessimism to one side and look at the science. With most of the science apparently supporting the safety, and regulatory bodies controlling the spread of GM with tighter restrictions, are we not ready to give GM a try?

At the same event as Sir Terry, Peter Kendall, president of the UK’s National Farmers Union added that there was need for real scientific debate and not the media ‘scaremongering’ that has been seen.

Hear, hear, Peter! Let’s do the science Hokey Cokey and see if there’s turnaround. We‘ll save the ra, ra, ra’s for judgement day.

Stephen Daniells is the Science Editor for and and He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France. He is neither for nor against GM.

If you would like to comment on this article please contact stephen.daniells'at'

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