Letter by Eva Novotny, SGR, to Margaret Beckett, MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, 25 March 2005
Dear Mrs Beckett,
I am writing on behalf of an organisation of some 600 British scientists who are dedicated to the principle that science and technology should be used only for purposes that are compatible with environmental sustainability and social justice. We therefore have an interest in the future of biotechnology and agriculture, and hence in the Agriculture, Environment and Biotechnology Commission and any possible replacement for that body, when it is abolished.
We believe that the best way to proceed, once the Commission is dissolved, is to set up a replacement body whose remit includes not only giving strategic advice on biotechnology and agriculture, but also on broader issues of food and farming, especially those related to the progress towards a sustainable farming sector.
The remit of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food (which resulted in the "Curry Report", issued on 29 January 2002) included advising the Government on how to create a sustainable farming and food sector "which contributes to a thriving and sustainable rural economy, advances environmental, economic, health and animal welfare goals". This was a valuable document, and the remit of the new body should include further investigation into means of achieving the goals stated in the Curry Report.
In connection with the environmental and health goals mentioned in the Curry Report, it will be important for the new body to advise on maintenance of soil structure and fertility, and on the interconnections between soil, farming practices, plant and animal health, and ultimately human health.
The degree to which resources are used unsustainably should, of course, be central in the remit of the new body. For example, the high use of oil in conventional agriculture (especially in the manufacture of pesticides and fertilisers) needs to be considered, while unsustainable use of oil for long-distance transport of food is also of key concern in a world trying to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and cope with dwindling oil reserves.
One role for the new body should be to examine independently the data on the performance and safety, for both health and the environment, of genetically modified crops. Several years of experience with these crops strongly indicate that further research, especially into long-term health effects, is urgently needed. The need for research on health is made shockingly clear in a recent book by Jeffrey M. Smith.1 However, it will be necessary to overcome serious concerns that scientists who express doubts over the safety of GM foods are not given a fair hearing.2
Regarding the membership of the new body, it is very important that this comes from a wide spectrum of scientific experts, representatives of the farming community, and others who can advise on economic and social issues. It is vital that the membership should not be weighted towards industries which representing any particular sector (eg e.g., agricultural biotechnology), and obviously no member should stand to make personal profit from his/ or her membership of the body. In particular, the chairman's viewpoint should be neutral in on controversial matters.
There is plenty of work to be done by a new body to prepare a comprehensive plan for a truly sustainable system of agriculture and distribution of food. The Government must not, however, place pre-conceived restrictions on its remit. Different methods of agriculture, policies for the environment as a whole and trade policies in the light of oil shortages and global warming should all be subject to re-examination.
Dr Eva Novotny
Co-ordinator for GM Issues
1 Jeffrey M. Smith, Seeds of Deception, 2004, Green Books; Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon
2 Two recent cases occurred on the panel of the GM Science Review, reported in The Observer, 24 August 2003.