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Introduction

The paper investigates the factors which made a significant contribution to the formation of the current policy towards the commercial release of genetically modified foods and seeds in the UK. It gives some reasons for understanding why the UK authorities have decided to regulate the commercialization of biotech crops. It explains how the regulation is correlated with the recent changes in the politics of risk regulation in Europe. A contrastive analysis of the UK and EU policies and politics in the area of GM crops is given in order to make a thorough investigation. This paper also summarizes the evolution of the UK and EU policies governing the GMO.

A brief review of biotech crops is given for the purposes of better understanding the situation in the context of discussions. A need for the regulation in the area of GMO is proven through the widespread public scepticism and absence of trust to biotech foods. In spite of the current public distrust, the biotech food has won a public attention since the first time of GMO crops had been commercialized in the UK market.  This paper provides some vivid examples that show how an intense debate between the advocates and opponents of the new technology caused a loss of public interest to the biotech foods.

In addition, the current state of labelling requirements as a new policy stage will be discussed in this paper. Furthermore, the reasons for the introduction of the labelling system and its consequences in the UK and in the number of other countries have been listed in the paper. The focus is made on a direct correlation between the labelling and the commercial release of GMO crops in the UK. Besides, the historical perspective and the current situations are taken into consideration in order to define the factors that have triggered a policy change in the area of GMO crops in the UK.

GMO Crops as a Breakthrough

The future of some genetically modified organisms has looked bright until the end of the 1990s. In other words, the GMO crops have set a new benchmark for the adoption of a new technology. The first threat on the way to the adoption has come into being in the form of the widespread consumer resistance in Europe and especially in the UK. Consumers have become increasingly concerned about the safety of biotech foods. That is why most countries have developed their own policy towards the GMO crops. The labelling system was also invented upon the request of consumers in order to deal with their concerns about the new technology.

In spite of all advantages, biotech crops have triggered the opposition, particularly in the UK. The main concern relates to the possible health and environmental risks such as the loss of biodiversity. The government is responsible for supplying consumers with safe food for their consumption. That is why most countries demand GM crops to be approved before growing, consumption and importing.

The regulatory policy appears to be the outcome of politicized debates and the interests of anti-biotech interest groups, especially in the UK. The GM crops are subjected to a more thorough scrutiny than the crops grown conventionally. The reforms of GM crops policy regulation are conducted to meet the needs of the general public. At present time, the overregulation has become a real threat to the use and the development of GMO crops in the UK.

Since the formation of the GMO crops market, it has become a scene of a struggle based on the conflict of interests (commercial, environmental and public). This has been represented by manufacturers, consumers, scientific institutions, and regulatory bodies. The EU and, in particular, the UK are the centres of the policy development for the regulation of the GM products’ world market (Toke & Marsh 2003).

UK Policy Principles towards the Commercial Release of GMO crops

The Novel Foods Regulation came into force in 1997. It required a full safety assessment of any GMO crop and the consideration by every member states prior to the commercialization. The Novel Food Regulation has comprised a fast track route for the processed GMO products.

New GMO crops have not been approved in Europe and in the UK as well since the October of 1998. A number of the member states announced that they would reject any new authorization until labelling rules and traceability are adopted. The main points of the UK policy in the sphere of GMO crops are considered to be the following ones:

  • all GMO crops and products have to be labelled. GMO ingredients are present in a final product that should be indicated;
  •  GMO crops should be traceable at all stages of the cultivation and processing (from a farm to the supermarket shelves);
  • The food containing the GM content of 0.9% or more must be labelled as the GM food;
  • a risk assessment is being coordinated by the European Food Safety Authority;
  • only a single application will be needed in order to get the approval for the cultivation and commercialization of GMO crops.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs controls the releases of GMO in the UK. All assessments are approved through the GM Food and Feed Regulations that have come into force since 2004 (Santaniello, Evenson & Zilberman 2002).

Labelling the GMO Crops in the UK

Labelling regulations can be classified as mandatory and voluntary. The second one has been adopted by the USA, Argentina and Canada. The UK was the first country that adopted a mandatory labelling system. Afterwards, lots of countries have announced their plans to adopt the mandatory labelling. However, only several of them have implemented this plan. According to the UK policy rules, all foods have to be labelled since 1999. Furthermore, all restaurant meals containing the GM food also should be labelled. In corroboration with these rules, the UK has adopted a range of some financial penalties.

The UK companies with the essential market shares had a good motivation to make their production GM free. A great number of firms have observed even the more strict labelling rules than required by the policy. For instance, Mark & Spencer have tolerated less than 0.1% GM content in their label products. In other cases, the products were discontinued. Moreover, the several international fast-food chains have removed biotech foods from their system in response to the UK labelling laws. McDonald’s, Wimpy, Burger King and Domino’s Pizza announced that their food to be produced using the GM free products.

The adoption of labelling policies and eradication of GM products could be explained by three main reasons. Some firms have introduced labelling because of the ethical views or due to the consumers’ desire. Besides, a vast number of companies has adopted the policies in order to increase their profits. For example, Iceland Foods gained the UK market share in the retail industry after removing all GM products.

In general, the introduction of labelling in the UK policy towards the GMO crops’ commercialization was the consumers’ desire to avoid any risks and dangers related to the biotech crops. Customers may assess risks in different ways than scientists. Several surveys have identified some factors that influence on the way the public sees risks.

Involuntary risks (radiation exposure) are perceived by people as more frightful in comparison with voluntary (smoking). Risks are also considered to be more serious if they arise from som unfamiliar, new or unexplored sources; or if they can cause the irrevocable or hidden harm. GMO crops are recognized by people as from the ones that scored positively on all of the above mentioned risk features.

Conflicting views about the new technology can be explained by the fact that the public and scientists follow different value systems. Scientists see the biotech crops as breakthrough that can provide the humanity with lots of benefits. Meanwhile, the public is hostile towards GMO crops and its reaction can be described as outrage and dread.

The hostile attitude towards something new, in this case, towards the GMO crops, can be explained by the sensation of mass media manipulations. In other words, the conclusive impact on the public opinion was made by the newspaper campaigns run against GMO crops and foods (Burke 2004).

Factors Affecting the Evolution of the GM Crops Policy in the UK

An overview of the historical sequence of events is an inherent part of  question of an issue. GMO crops and foods have become a controversial issue in the UK since 1997. Firstly, a licensing of these crops was made conditional at that time. Moreover, the commercial planting of GMO crops was frozen for the period of the crop research trials. In 1998, Michael Meacher, the UK Environmental Protection Minister, suggested the policy to be changed. He announced a year of the interruption in the commercial realization of biotech crops.

Farm scale evaluations were set up in order to define whether farming with the application of GMO crops to be more hazardous to plants and animals than the conventional farming. Beet, maize, spring oilseed rape and winter oilseed rape were subjected to a close study. The FSE has discovered the following data: growing the GM spring rape and beet negatively influenced on many groups of wildlife in comparison with the same conventional crops while growing the GM maize showed a better impact on many groups of wildlife than the conventional maze.

Meacher together with environmental groups took an active part in organizing the meetings concerning the GM issue. Thanks to him, the policy changes had not taken for a long time to occur and were not evidently imposed on the UK by the EU decisions.  Later on, a Scientific Steering Committee was established in order to assess the results of the crop research trials. The scientists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the English Nature and the Game of Conservancy Trust and other independent scientists were the members of the SSC. Besides, ten out of thirteen members of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment were replaced by academic experts. The government’s decision whether to permit the commercial cultivation of the GM crops included recommendations made by the Scientific Steering Committee, the Advisory Committee and a public consultation. In other words, the scientific data and a public opinion were two main factors that influenced on the evolution of the UK policy in the sphere of GMO crops’ commercial release (Toke & Marsh 2003).

Public concerns about the safety of GM foods have been growing since the appearance of the biotech food. The survey conducted for Monsanto has demonstrated this fact. In 1997, only 35% of respondents considered the GM food as ”unacceptable”.  This figure had risen to 51% by the end of the next year. These changes in the public perception may be seen as a significant factor making its contribution to  shaping the policy. Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of the State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has taken into consideration the public concerns. As a result, a labelling was introduced and consumers were able to choose between the GM or non-GM products.

The first mass action directed towards the eradication of GMO crops began in the UK. In this country, the public strongly had opposed to the GMO for many years. A survey conducted by the Association of Consumers has found that only about a quarter of country population approved the cultivation of GM crops in the UK. In opposition, some authorities have supported the introduction of genetic engineering in agriculture.

In 2004, Bayer CropScience intended to stop commercializing the GM maize in the UK because it had become commercially non-viable due to the conditions imposed by the UK government. However, the limited approval had been achieved when Farm Scale Evaluation trials proved that the maize had caused less damage to the wildlife in comparison with conventional varieties. Nevertheless, the continuous disagreement over GMO crops has caused a loss of the competitive edge. Besides, Bayer has pointed out that the UK strict regulations on GMO crops could put at risk the introduction of this new technology.

In its turn, a rapid change in the attitude of people towards the GMO crops was caused by mass media. Its aim was to influence the public opinion. In 1998, a broadcast on the TV World suggested that the GM potato may have harmed to rats. In addition, the radical anti-GM groups carried out some campaigns urging consumers to convince supermarkets not to sell GM products.

The supermarket chain Iceland was the first that excluded GM products from its brands. Environmentalists explain the negative change in the public attitude towards the GMO crops by the fact that people have become more averse to possible risks from new technologies. In other words, consumers believe that the GM food has no benefits, only risks. However, in fact, the sustainable recourses and food security are being a indisputable issue on this day and age. The world population increases rapidly causing a case where the food demand is beginning to exceed the supply. That is why some new genetic resources should be devised. Transgenic crops are considered to be an ideal option due to their agronomic traits, i.e. the insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.

In 1996, the GMO crops were commercialized for the first time. The biotech crop market consisted of the GMO maize, soybean, cotton and canola.  Between 1996 and 2007, the area of GMO crops had grown all over the world and increased from 2 million up to 115 million of hectare. Biotech crops were grown in twenty thee countries.

In spite of all advantages and increased yields of GMO crops, this technology remains one of the most disputable issues of the current times. Lots of consumers and environmental groups are convinced that biotech crops can bring many more harms than benefits. However, a need to produce more crops on a smaller territory forces the humanity to resort to the help of the new technology (Levidson 2000).

As a result, the issue of safety and nutritional evaluation of the biotech food has become the subject for discussions. Nevertheless, it will not be discussed in details, but only at the initial stage. The recent study comparing a diet with the GM and non-GM maize has been reported by Flachowsky and Halle. The scientists have reported that the GM maize did not essentially influence on the health and hatchability of poultry, nor the quality of eggs and meat. The conclusion of the study is a nutrition value of biotech food is the same as the non-biotech food.

Besides in the UK, the debates concerning the GMO crops policy have occurred in the EU. Until the 1990s, such debates had arisen only in Germany and Denmark.  After a little bit, the intense discussions have emerged in some other countries. Drawing a parallel between the evolution of the UK policy and the EU policy, it is considered to be not a less important part than any other sides of our survey.

Since the GMO crops have approached a commercial stage, anti-biotechnology representatives throughout Europe have linked the GM food with environmental and health risks and boycotted the agricultural biotechnology. Retailers were forced to exclude the GM ingredients from their brand labels in result of the protests and boycotts.

The Risk Assessment Test of Commercialized GMO Crops

Policy makers were forced to regulate the commercialization of products made out of biotech crops more strictly than any other products because of the controversy around the new technology. Before the presentation of a new GMO crop into the environment, it had to undergo a risk assessment test designed to inform experts about the potential risk for humans, animals and the environment. Afterwards, the authorization for commercialization was granted. However, in fact, the first regulations for the risk assessment of genetically modified organisms were drawn up in the 1980s. In other words, it had happened approximately a decade prior to commercialization of GMO crops.

The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization have developed the guidance for food safety through the Codex process. Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is one more internationally recognized instrument which came into force in 2003. The CPB presents only the high-level regulations on the risk assessment.

The risk assessment for biotech foods is based on the well-developed concepts used in other risk assessment schemes. A lot of environmentally risk assessment schemes depend on the widely accepted methods for danger and exposure characterization and the estimation of risks. Obtained results shall be compared to the”safety” threshold defined by regulatory authorities.

In regard to biotech crops, the most risk assessment methods conducted by comparing the GM crop to an appropriate non-GM counterpart. The non-GM crops are used as a comparator in the risk assessment in order to point out any differences caused by the genetic modification. The comparison of GM and non-GM crops is performed taking into account agronomic, molecular, morphological characteristics and chemical compositions. In case no differences, except the intended modification have been found, the crops can be considered as ”substantially equivalent”. If the consistent differences are noticed, and they go beyond the expected effects of presenting a new gene, this may signify the occurrence of unintended effects. These effects are evaluated with the respect to their environmental implications, safety and nutritional impacts.

The aim of the environmental risk assessment is considered to be the determination of potential hazards, the likelihood of realization and some possible consequences. The logical progression is an inherent feature of a well-constructed environment risk assessment. The first step of assessment is the collection of all available information on the GM crops. This information is used to make the first evaluation of the potential hazards of biotech crops and the extent of exposure. Risk conclusions are drawn if the GM crops are not posing the meaningful hazards or if there is only the negligible exposure. The further investigation is needed in case of the significant potential hazard and exposure. Experiments of increasing complexity are conducted basing on testing hypotheses.

The assessment end points and measurement end points are two distinct types that are needed to conduct the environmental risk assessment. The appropriate risk assessment collects the data that link the measurement end points with the environmental management goals by the means of end points. The concrete experimental details can vary depending on the crop combination and the geographical region (Levidson 2000).

Policy Mediating the Conflicts

The public debates and scientific disagreements have become an obstacle on the way to commercializing the GM crops. Regulatory procedures have changed their criteria for the purpose of mediating the conflicts. The Deliberate Release Directive governs the process of approving all GMO releases. In 1990, it was justified by connecting the environmental protection with the market integration. The aim of the Directive was to establish the proper criteria and procedures for assessing GMO releases of commercial products.

When public boycotts erupted in the UK, the earlier safety assumptions were challenged. The government devised further precautions for the GM crops’ cultivation (measures directed on limiting the spread of herbicide tolerance genes). For instance, Denmark has accepted the need for large-scale monitoring of herbicide-tolerant sugar beet. This monitoring was an extra stage before the commercialization. Besides, the measures were taken for the protection of organic fields from the GMO “contamination”.

The UK authority has adopted measures for testing and decreasing the overall effect of herbicide usage on biodiversity fields. Moreover, the UK has established an Agricultural and Environmental Biotechnology Commission. Its main obligation was to advice on strategic issues. For example, advising on definitions of environmental harms and criteria for sustainable resources.

In spite of all protests against the GMO, the benefits of biotech crops are being realized by the global community. However, in the UK and other European countries, the status of genetically modified crops still remains controversial. Nevertheless, taking into account all pros and cons, the public must decide whether the humanity needs this new technology.

The Prime Minister’ Strategy Unit (SU) has conducted an evaluation of the benefits and costs of the commercial commercialization of GMO crops in the UK. The evaluation has concluded that although current GMO crops could bring some advantages to farmers in the UK, however, any economic profits are probably may be limited by some negative consumers’ attitudes. Over the next several years, the EU has admitted the significant potential for the benefits from the developments in the GMO technology (Ferry & Gatehouse 2009).

The EU Policy Evolution

The EU Novel Foods Regulation and Directive 2001/18/EC have given the framework to approve and market GMO crops in the EU. Companies have to submit an application to a member state. The scientific assessment of the impact on human, animal and plant health must be included in the application.  The member state will send the dossier for the further assessment to the European Commission in case the GM crops comply with all the regulatory criteria. If a positive review is obtained the EC redirects the dossier to the other member states for their comments.  

Later on, this process has been simplified to one application. In addition, the traceability and labelling regulations have become the part of the new policy governing GMO crops. GM products shall also satisfy other non-GMO regulatory procedures. For instance, every new GMO crop variety must be registered in the UK or the EU in the seeds’ lists.

The extensive cultivation of GMO crops may result in the appearance of non-GM products containing some GM material. This can occur through crosspollination, mixing during harvesting, transportation and processing. That is why the issues on coexistence have been considered by the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission.

In 2003, the AEBC advised that:

  • the government policy shall promote the customer choice while allowing the UK farmers to respond to demand;
  • farmers who grow both biotech crops and non-biotech crops should follow legally enforceable protocols in order to ensure that the content of the GM material in non-GM crops is below the EU’s 0.9% threshold;
  • intensive monitoring will be conducted for the purpose of testing the practicability of coexistence measures during the introductory period;
  • the government must deal with any environmental effects of GMO crops.

The same year, the European Community issued some guidelines that member states have to provide some measures to enable non-biotech crops to be produced within he EC labelling thresholds. The new EU regulation demands the food products to be labelled as GM containing in case of unintended GM content of 0.9% or more. The EU Regulation claims that farmers growing organic corps are not allowed to use the genetically modified organisms in their organic production (Santaniello, Evenson & Zilberman 2002).

Conclusion

To sum up, the policy towards the commercial release of biotech crops in the UK is closely related with the EU policy. However, the UK policy is considered to be stricter than any other in EU. The continuous improvement of regulations governing the commercial release of GMO crops has been triggered by various factors. In general, all factors can be classified into two main groups: scientific and social. All these taken one with another have played a crucial role in the evolution of the policy. Scientists have assessed the state of the latest scientific data on GMO crops and foods. The public debates have showed what the population really thinks about the GMO.

Public opinions and demands represent a social factor. A complex analysis of the issue allows claiming that this factor is a primary and basic one which is interrelated with the other one. This factor vividly demonstrates how the policy change has occurred due to the customers’ desire to be able to make the choice between the GM or non-GM products. As a result of the consumers’ demand, the labelling of biotechnology foods has been introduced to the general public. This innovation can be viewed as a new step in the policy evolution towards the commercial release of GMO crops in the UK.

A scientific factor represents the value of biotech crops to the humanity. Authorities and scientists have understood the importance of the GM crops’ cultivation. The essential reason is the fact that genetically modified organisms are sustainable sources needed for the humanity in our time. That is why they have promoted the commercialization of biotech crops in the world market. Regulations for commercialization are perceived as a contribution to the policy development.

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