In a move that has garnered praise from environmentalists and sharp criticism from farmers, Scotland announced Sunday that it would move to ban the growing of genetically modified crops throughout the country.
“Scotland is known around the world for our beautiful natural environment — and banning growing genetically modified crops will protect and further enhance our clean, green status,” Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary, said in a statement.
The move further distances Scotland from the policies of the United Kingdom, which has been slowly softening its stance on GMO crops. Currently, no genetically modified crops are grown anywhere in the United Kingdom, though some are imported for use in animal feed and food products. According to the Guardian, that could change soon — ministers in London, supported by scientific bodies, the National Farmers Union, and agribusiness, have announced plans to begin the cultivation of genetically modified crops like maize and oilseed rape throughout England.
Only a single GMO crop — a type of genetically modified maize known as MON 810 — is grown commercially in the European Union, mainly in Spain. In January, the European Union passed a law that allows member states to individually opt out of growing GMOs within their borders, even if the crop is approved by the larger EU governing body. So far, Germany, France, Belgium, Poland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Greece, and Luxembourg have enacted full or partial bans on the cultivation of GMOs within certain regions or throughout the country as a whole.
The EU isn’t alone in its restrictive stance on GMOs — as of 2013, at least 26 countries around the world had total or partial bans on genetically modified crops, including China, India, Mexico, and Russia. In the United States, GMO bans are often considered the discretion of local government — municipalities in Hawaii, California, and Oregon have enacted bans.
A broad array of scientific bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, and the Royal Society of Medicine all say that genetically modified crops are no more a threat to public health than conventionally-bred crops.
The environmental ramifications of genetically modified crops are less cut-and-dry than the public health questions, but studies have shown GMOs to be both potentially beneficial and detrimental to the environment, based largely on the way they are used. Insecticide-resistant crops allow farmers to spray more targeted insecticides, cutting down on unintended consequences to outside food webs. Herbicide-resistant crops, on the other hand, can encourage farmers to overuse sprays like Roundup, leading to the promulgation of herbicide-resistant weeds. But herbicide-resistant crops also encourage farmers to till their soil less (to deal with weeds), saving the greenhouse gas emissions associated with tilling machinery and encouraging soil health.
Despite the potential benefits and the scientifically accepted safety of genetically modified crops, the European public is generally opposed to their use in agriculture. A 2011 report looking at public attitudes towards science and science policy in the UK found that genetically modified crops were one of the most contentious areas of public opinion, on par with nuclear power and the use of animals in research. In the same survey, 59 percent of those questioned said that they felt “not informed” about GMOs.
In announcing the ban on GMOs, the Scottish government cited potential consumer backlash as a driving factor behind the decision.
“Scottish food and drink is valued at home and abroad for its natural, high quality which often attracts a premium price, and I have heard directly from food and drink producers in other countries that are ditching GM because of a consumer backlash,” Lochhead 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.”
According government numbers, the entire Scottish food and drink industry supply chain employed 360,000 workers in 2009. The industry contributes £14 billion (about $22 billion) to the country’s economy — food and drink exports exceeded £1 billion for the first time in 2015, with whiskey and salmon among the most valuable commodities.
Environmentalists praised Scotland’s decision to ban GMOs from the country, a move that they argue will help preserve the country’s image of producing high-quality goods.
“If you are a whiskey 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,” Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, told the Guardian. “It is certainly in Scotland’s interests to keep GM out of Scotland.”
The move garnered criticism from the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS), whose chief executive Scott Walker told the Guardian that the government was basing its policies on unsubstantiated claims.
“Other countries are embracing biotechnology where appropriate and we should be open to doing the same here in Scotland,” he said. “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.”
Andrew McCornick, vice-president of the NFUS, also criticized the ban, telling the Scotsman that he feared it would make Scottish farmers less competitive if farmers elsewhere — especially in the UK — use GM crops.
“There is going to be one side of the Border in England where they may adopt biotechnology, but just across the River Tweed farmers are not going to be allowed to,” McCornick said. “How are these farmers going to be capable of competing in the same market? It is certainly won’t be delivering a level playing field with other countries.”
The ban would cover the already-approved genetically modified maize grown throughout the EU, as well as six other crops currently awaiting approval. The ban would not cover GMOs used in laboratory research. It’s unclear whether the ban will impact animals raised on genetically modified feed, which is one of the primary uses for GM crops imported to the UK.