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Published

19 December 2012

New tone in GMO debate evident at seminar

Future plant biotechnology was the theme of a seminar in Uppsala recently. Its purpose was to disseminate knowledge, but also help to bring about a more sophisticated debate about genetically modified crops and foodstuffs.

Public debate on genetically modified foods has long been polarised, with advocates and opponents in locked positions, far apart. Nevertheless, some tendencies suggest we are heading from a more nuanced discussion tone, with the two camps cautiously drawing closer. This emerged during a seminar. The Future of Plant Biotechnology in Europe, at the beginning of November.

‘It was an excellent seminar, with contributions that emphasised both the potential and the difficulties of using plant biotechnology,’ says Sven Ove Hansson, Professor of Philosophy and programme manager for the Mistra Biotech research programme, which co-arranged the seminar.

Film prompted dialogue with the public

The seminar gathered about a hundred people working in the farm and food sector, including representatives of public agencies, agricultural organisations, companies and researchers. During the day, both new technology and new legislation were discussed. The participants also talked about how researchers in the field can interact with the public.

One of the speakers invited was Professor Huw Jones, the British researcher at Rothamsted Research (UK). Jones and his colleagues have developed a new genetically modified (GM) variety of wheat that does not require pesticides. Instead, they have inserted into the wheat a naturally occurring gene that makes the plant produce its own substance that keeps aphid pests at bay.

Field trials with the GM wheat strain at Rothamsted in Hertfordshire, to the north of London, have been strongly criticised by the general public and environmental organisations. Huw Jones described the research team’s active efforts to respond to and inform the public, without denying the risks. Before a demonstration at the end of May, there were even threats to sabotage the field trials. The researchers’ efforts to prevent this included making a YouTube film in which they presented the facts and asked the demonstrators to exercise self-restraint. The protest took place but without any destruction.

Increased acceptance exciting

During the seminar, Huw Jones stated that acceptance of GM crops generally seems to have increased over the past year. Sven Ove Hansson, too, thinks he can detect signs of this and sees exciting years ahead for the Mistra Biotech research programme.

‘I can’t say that there has been any real swing in public opinion, but I can see signs that more objective discussion of biotechnology and genetic engineering has begun. This is a good thing both for research and for our efforts to create sustainable farming,’ says Sven Ove Hansson.

The primary purpose of Mistra Biotech is to use plant biotechnology to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and food production. However, the research programme also involves an explicit strategy of communicating with society’s various stakeholders, and the seminar was part of this strategy.

Text: Henrik Lundström, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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