GM plants should be licenced ‘in same way as medicinal drugs’

Genetically modified plants should be licensed in the same way as medicinal drugs under a sweeping reform to the regulatory system that hands powers held by the EU back to individual countries, a new report claims.

GM technology is as safe as conventional breeding and the current system acts as an “impediment” to developing crops that could help global food security, the paper for the Council for Science and Technology (CST) says.

It says decisions should be based instead on the genetic make-up and purpose of individual products, with current regulator the European Food Standards Agency reduced to an advisory role, giving member states power to licence or block development through a body similar to drug agency Nice.

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The CST has now written to Prime Minister David Cameron urging him to push for changes to be made by the EU.

Co-chairman Sir Mark Walport said it did not want to reduce regulation but make it “fit for purpose”, because the politics surrounding GM had made the current system “dysfunctional”.

He said: “The real question for regulation of GM products is ‘what gene, what organism and for what purpose?’

“We tend to treat technologies such as GM as all-or-nothing but they are not. It is not the technology, the technology can be used for all sorts of purposes. We need to look at each product individually – what gene is it you are using, what organism and why?”

Environmental and anti-GM campaigners condemned the idea.

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The report was written by scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Reading, the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich and Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, led by Sir David Baulcombe, Cambridge’s head of plant sciences.

It called for a rebalance of the system to look at benefits from GM as well as risks, with regulation to be based on “traits” in altered plants allowing decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis.

It backed the European Academies Science Advisory Council, an umbrella group for 29 science bodies including the Royal Society, which had already said there is no basis for the current system to remain in place.