Nuffield Council on Bioethics and GM Crops. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Dr. Igno Potrykus is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and is known for his work in developing what is called “Golden Rice”.  He is the one who organised the Study Week in May on the theme “transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development.”  In a letter to The Irish Catholic he criticized me for voicing opposition to one-sided nature of the  Study Week. Only those who support GM crops were invited.  In his rebuttal he pointed out that the majority of those invited are ethicists, lawyers, development economists and biologists.

Even so, many of these people are well-known for their support for GM crops. Take the case of Albert Weale. His abstract is entitled “Ethical Arguments Relevant to the Use of GM Crops.”  He quotes from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB)  documents on GMOs published in 1999 and 2004.[1] Having looked at some of the objections raised about GM technology he focuses on the potential benefits. He writes, “however the potential to bring about significant benefits in developing countries (improved nutrition, enhanced pest resistance, increased yield and new products) meant that there was an ethical obligation to explore these potential benefits responsibly, in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty, improved food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries.”   I have no problem with having the Nuffield position being represented at the Study-Week, but other ethical views on GMOs should also be heard.

George Monbiot a columnist at The Guardian challenged the conclusions of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.[2] He calls it the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. According to Monbiot  there are three fundament arguments against the NCOB report. The first is that it assumes that the technology is neutral.  In reality genetic engineering technology is inseparable from the corporations who own the technology and who are now trying to control the whole food chain. No genetically engineered crop reaches the market without a patent which forbids farmers from saving seeds and sharing them with their neighbours as farmers have done since the dawn of agriculture. The second mistake is to assume that producing more food will solve the issue of hunger. Monbiot calls attention to a Christian Aid publication which points out that while the Green Revolution in Latin America raised production by 8% per head, malnutrition increased by 19% during the same period.  In fact a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US called Failure to Yield published in February 2009 makes it clear that GM technology has not increased yield. The greatest increase in yield has come from conventional breeding.

The 1999 Nuffield study on increased yield from GM crops was based on a Monsanto-initiated project to breed a GM virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya.  The Nuffield report says that the expected yield will increase by 18-25%.  In fact the 3 trials proved to be a failure.  Aaron deGrassi, a researcher with the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex examined some of the claims made for the GM sweet potato by Dr. C.S. Prakash, who incidentally is one of the speakers at the PAS Study Week in May.  In his report “Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa,” deGrassi points out an “example of advocacy trumping facts is C.S. Prakash’s  repeated claims that GM sweet potatoes (in Kenya) are a  positive example of the benefits of GM for African countries. (Yet) he has confessed to having no knowledge of the results of scientific trials in Kenya. [3] Even though deGrassi’s critique was published before the Nuffield report that document does not refer to it.

It is also important to remember that quite a number of the experts on the Nuffield working party had close links with the biotech industry.  Professor Mike Gale FRS is a biotechnologist and former director of The John Innes Centre (JIC) which is the leading biotech centre.  Professor Derek Burke is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA) and a form chair of the Governing Council of the JIN. Professor Burke was chair for a decade (1988-97) of the Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). This was the regulatory body which approved the first GM food to enter Britain. Finally Brian Heap FRS was a leading member of the Royal Society. Like Burke and Gale Heap helped produce the Royal Society’s report “Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use.” This was used at an earlier stage to reassure the British government that there were not significant problems with GM food. It is hardly fair to say that the Nuffield Report was independent.


[1] www.nuffieldbioethics,org/filelibrary/pdf/gm_crops_paper_final.pdf

[2] George Monbiot, “Getting it wrong about food,” The Guardian, 3rd June, 1999.

[3] C.S. Prakash, Profiles, www.gmwatch.org 17/09/2004, page 8

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