Scotland to issue formal ban on genetically modified crops

EU member states will now be allowed to choose whether or not to permit the cultivation of GMOs. [Sarah Sammis/Flickr]

Scottish ministers are planning to formally ban genetically modified crops from being grown in Scotland, widening a policy divide with the Conservative government in London.

Ministers in Edinburgh are to apply to use recent EU powers that allow devolved administrations to opt out of a more relaxed regime, which is expected to increase commercial use of GM crops around the EU.

The move will reinforce a long-standing moratorium on planting GM crops in Scotland and allow the Scottish National party to further distance itself from the UK government.

Backed by agribusiness, scientific bodies and the National Farmers Union, ministers in London have already signalled that they plan to allow commercial cultivation of GM crops such as maize and oilseed rape in England, despite significant resistance from consumers and environmental groups.

The Scottish government announcement on Sunday did not say whether this new legal power would extend to a ban on scientific and experimental research, but a spokeswoman confirmed that laboratory research on GMOs would continue.

Scottish scientists, including those at the James Hutton Institute and the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, have taken a leading role in GM research. The Scottish government’s former chief scientific officer, Dame Anne Glover, who became the European commission’s chief scientific adviser before the position was abolished, is a keen advocate of GM crops.

The spokeswoman for the Scottish government said: “These changes would not affect research as it is currently carried out in Scotland, where the contained use of GM plants is permitted for scientific purposes, for example in laboratories or sealed glasshouse facilities.’’

Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s environment secretary, said he wanted to uphold the precautionary principle – that the potential risks to other crops and wildlife from GMOs outweighed the likely benefits of the technology – by banning the commercialisation of GM crops.

“There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14bn food and drink sector,” he said.

“The Scottish government has long-standing concerns about GM crops – concerns that are shared by other European countries and consumers, and which should not be dismissed lightly,” he added. “I firmly believe that GM policy in Scotland should be guided by what’s best for our economy and our own agricultural sector rather than the priorities of others.”

His announcement was applauded by environment campaigners. Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “The Scottish government has been making anti-GM noises for some time, but the new Tory government has been trying to take us in the direction of GM being used in the UK, so it is very good news that Scottish ministers are taking that stance.

“If you are a whisky producer or breeding high-quality beef, you ought to be worried if you don’t want GM but it is going to come to a field near you and you were worried that there was going to be some contamination. It is certainly in Scotland’s interests to keep GM out of Scotland.”

Related: GM crops to be fast-tracked in UK following EU vote

The new measure angered NFU Scotland, which described the decision as naive and taken without an adequate debate. Scott Walker, chief executive of NFU Scotland, said: “Other countries are embracing biotechnology where appropriate and we should be open to doing the same here in Scotland.

“Decisions should be taken on the individual merits of each variety, based on science and determined by whether the variety will deliver overall benefit. These crops could have a role in shaping sustainable agriculture at some point and at the same time protecting the environment which we all cherish in Scotland.”

Murdo Fraser, for the Scottish Conservatives, said there was no great pressure for commercial use of GMOs in Scotland but that the weight of scientific opinion was in favour of the technology.

“I think this decision puts superstition before science,’’ he said. “There’s a very strong scientific consensus that GM foods could be hugely beneficial, increasing the volume of food for the world’s population.

“There are two specific issues here for Scotland: if the rest of the UK moves to encourage GM foods and Scotland doesn’t, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage, and secondly, a lot of our research institutes which are keen to pursue this technology will lose talent.”

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