MINISTERS in Scotland are facing a growing backlash from the scientific community over a ban on growing genetically modified crops, reported Glasgow’s Herald today.
A leading academic at the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture warned that the move could hamper the fight against heart disease.
Researchers at the Institute have found that oils from genetically modified (GM) oilseed crops could provide a sustainable source of omega-3 fatty acids that could be used to feed farmed fish, reducing the pressure on ocean sourced fish oil.
Douglas Tocher, Professor of Molecular Nutrition at Stirling, believes the new method could offer a solution to limited stocks of natural fish oil which is used in traditional feed to provide omega-3.
Omega-3 is essential for the health of fish and protects against cardiovascular disease when consumed by humans.
The feed could go to market within three years, but the Scottish government’s announcement would mean the crops could not be grown in the country where the academic said the oils could be used most effectively.
Professor Tocher (pictured) said that omega-3 levels in farmed fish were already falling and that if new sources were not developed, nutrient levels would fall below those of fish caught in the wild, with implications for consumers all over the world.
If the GM oils were produced overseas and imported, he argued, it would lead to Scotland losing revenue streams, cause increased costs to fish farmers and have a detrimental impact on the environment.
Writing on the Conversation, a website that publishes articles from academics and researchers, he said: ‘The project addresses not only an important aspect of population health but also issues of environmental impact, sustainability and food security.
‘When you consider that Scotland has a high death rate from heart disease – one third of all deaths – it is ironic that that we are also a nation producing many thousands of tonnes of farmed salmon that can be a rich source of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.’
He said he was not suggesting that omega-3 or GM were ‘panaceas for all our ills’.
But he added: ‘Our research simply highlights one application of GM technology to solve a critical problem, and the context within which it was developed.
‘But while few would disagree that Scotland has a beautiful natural environment or that seeking to protect it is a good policy, what exactly are the risks that growing GM crops actually pose?
‘The Scottish government’s announcement is rather unclear when it comes to this question.’
The criticism comes after the former chief medical advisor to the Scottish government, Professor Anne Glover, also attacked the ban, questioning what evidence it was based on.
Tocher agreed the decision appeared to have been taken without taking scientific evidence into consideration or allowing for debate on the issue.
Referring to last year’s referendum on independence, he said: ‘In September 2014, Scotland showed the world how to have a truly public and inclusive debate on a subject of massive national and international importance, make a decision based on that debate, and then accept and live with that decision.
‘If the true lesson of that was not to have a debate that you think you might lose, the Scottish government appears to have learned it all too well.’
However, writing in The Herald today Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead defended the ban, which comes after rules were changed to allow countries to opt out of growing EU-authorised GM crops.
He argued it would be ‘foolhardy’ to risk the global reputation of Scottish produce many remain sceptical about the benefits of GM.
‘I respect the views of those in the scientific community who support the development of GM technology,’ he said, ‘but decisions can’t be based on science alone… we must also take into account the wider context including the reputation of our country – the preventative principle – and the will of our people – the democratic principle.’