The Nuffield Council on Bioethics provoked considerable discussion with the publication of its report, Genetically modified crops: ethical and social issues in 1999. The report recommended that, if the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries could be shown to be a cost-effective way to reduce malnutrition, there was a moral imperative to encourage the application of GM technology. Now, three years on, the Nuffield Council announces it is to re-assess the conclusions and recommendations of its report in the light of recent developments, with particular reference to developing countries.

On the evidence available in 1999, the Nuffield Council concluded that GM crops could provide significant benefits to developing countries, provided that potential risks to health and the environment could be managed. Possible benefits included increased yields, enhanced pest resistance and tolerance to stress, improved nutrition, and new products, such as vaccines produced in crops. However, there were several unanswered questions when the Council’s Report was published. Some of these remain, but a range of new scientific evidence is now available to help assess the potential of the technology. GM crops have been grown on a considerable number of small-holding farms in developing countries over the last three years. Recent trends in poverty and hunger in developing countries also need to be considered. Rural poverty has become an increasing concern, while at the same time improvements in crop yields have slowed. Water shortages are also more acute, as discussed at the World Water Forum last week. The potential application of GM technology will be considered in the context of developments in regulation, trade, intellectual property rights and consumer attitudes.

“We feel it is timely, in the light of recent developments, to re-assess the recommendations we made in the 1999 Report,” commented Dr Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council. The Council will publish a draft discussion paper on the topic for consultation in June 2003. The potential application of GM in developing countries is often neglected in the UK debate. It is hoped that the Council’s paper will contribute to the national dialogue on GM taking place this year.