Engineered potato plants could reduce the need for fungicides.

Engineered potato plants could reduce the need for fungicides.

Wayne Hutchinson/Alamy

Scientists protest Scotland’s ban of GM crops

Research organizations are asking the Scottish government to reconsider its recent decision to ban the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops. The ban “risks constraining Scotland's contribution to research and leaving Scotland without access to agricultural innovations which are making farming more sustainable elsewhere in the world,” 28 science organizations maintain in a letter sent on 17 August to the Scottish cabinet secretary for rural affairs, food and environment, Richard Lochhead.

The European Union recently agreed to allow individual nations—and devolved authorities, such as Scotland—to forbid GM crops on their territory. On 9 August, Lochhead announced he would not consent to planting of insect-resistant corn, the only GM crop approved E.U.-wide for planting. Nor would he approve the use of six other GM crops that are under evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority. The reason is to “protect and further enhance our clean, green status,” Lochhead said in a statement.

Many scientists are upset that Lochhead has made his decision without public consultation, says Chris Peters, a campaigner at Sense About Science, a nonprofit in London that advocates for use of evidence in government policy-making and organized the letter. “There’s quite a bit of anger and disbelief.”

In the short term, the government decision won’t affect farmers in Scotland, because not much corn is grown there. But the ban could put Scottish farmers at a disadvantage when new GM crops are commercialized. “Traits currently being investigated that might benefit Scotland's farmers, consumers and environment include potatoes that can reduce fungicide use and omega-3–enriched oilseeds that could provide a more sustainable source of feed for salmon farming,” the letter states.

The research groups and societies, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Society of Plant Breeders, have asked to meet with Lochhead to discuss the scientific evidence on GM crops. “By banning their use in Scotland, this country would be prevented from benefiting from future innovations in agriculture, fisheries and healthcare,” they write in the letter. “We are thus extremely concerned about the potential negative effect on science in Scotland.”

In a statement emailed to ScienceInsider, Lochhead said: “I will be happy to meet representatives of the science community and reassure them that these changes will not affect research as it is currently carried out in Scotland."

A Scottish government spokesperson added: “We respect the views of those in the scientific community who support the development of GM technology and recognise that GM research is a fast-moving field and the technology is developing rapidly. The Scottish Government will continue to receive expert advice from our scientific advisors and others."

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