GM policy 'cannot be left to the scientists'

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The Independent Online

The Government should commission regular opinion polls, citizens' juries and focus groups to influence its genetically modified foods policy, an authoritative report claimed yesterday.

The Government should commission regular opinion polls, citizens' juries and focus groups to influence its genetically modified foods policy, an authoritative report claimed yesterday.

The Economic and Social Research Council said that such a radical reform of the UK's scientific advisory system was the only way to overcome public mistrust of the new technology.

The council's Global Environment Change Programme claims that scientists and politicians need to take much more account of concerns about the cultural, ethical and environmental issues raised by GM foods and crops.

The Politics of GM Food: Risk, Science and Public Trust points out that, contrary to some statements by the biotech industry and the scientific community, the public "are not stupid or ignorant about their approach to risk as consumers".

The report - a summary of evidence on the GM food debate collected as part of the council's £15m programme - was hailed by green groups yesterday as the most comprehensive study of the issue to date.

Alister Scott, the report's editor, said it was time that the Government admitted science could not provide definitive answers about the safety of new technologies and needed to consult the public much more widely.

"GM food involves new technologies whose long-term environmental effects are uncertain and where we are quite simply ignorant of the likely range of their potential impacts," he said.

"If anything, the public are ahead of many scientists and policy advisers in their instinctive feeling for the need to act in a precautionary way.

"At present, the public, quite reasonably, don't trust the use of a narrowly based science as a crutch to justify political decision-making in contentious areas of new technology

"However, our work shows that if governments greatly expand their initial tentative steps to be much more inclusive in decision-making, only then is public acceptance of any risks involved likely to be much greater and subsequent backlashes avoided."

However, Michael Meacher, an Environment minister, denied that the Government was not interested in public opinion and pointed out that the whole advisory system was already being overhauled.

"I certainly very strongly support openness, transparency, involving the public, bringing them into our confidence, telling them what we are doing, why we are doing it and asking them their opinion," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"But that of course is what we are trying to do: we have encouraged informal debate, we have increased the openness of the Government's advisory committee.

"The agendas, the minutes, the reports are all placed in the public domain."

Mr Meacher said the apparent gap between the Government's and the public's attitude towards GM technology "partly reflects" the effect of food scares such as the BSE crisis. "Understandably, I quite understand this, the public is sceptical.

"We do realise there are uncertainties, particularly about the effect of genetic modification on bio-diversity, on wildlife in the countryside.

"That is exactly why we have set up the farm scale evaluations, a four-year programme to find out the facts and the truth," he said.

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