Theres no denying the benefits genetically modified crops could offer farmers, consumers and the environment. But the technology must enjoy public confidence.
Thats why the report, Crops on Trial, issued by government advisers this week, is so welcome. It provides much needed clarity where fudge has ruled. Prepared by the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, which advises government on GM issues, it stresses that GM crops in the UK should not be commercialised until the technology is scientifically proven to be safe to consumers and the environment, and is accepted by the public.
Image is everything and public acceptance is vital if GM crops are not to become the next bad news story to hit farming. Undeniably, pressure to get the technology adopted is intense. Biotech firms have been sweating as shareholder confidence in the technologys ability to deliver big profits is eroded. But that must not be allowed to force the technology on to an unwilling public.
Vague government pronouncements do not help. Nobody wants to kill off a technology that could deliver real benefits through lower production costs, improved environmental protection, from reduced pesticide use and better quality food.
But, why did AEBC speak out? Why has it stressed that the conclusion of farmscale evaluation trials at harvest 2003 will not signal the go-ahead for GM cropping in the UK?
AEBC rightly slams ministers and officials for creating the impression that the decision will be made solely on the results of the trials. Ethical, strategic and economic issues will need considering too. Most important of all is public perception.
Without public support, theres a risk that a public backlash could kill GM cropping in the UK and tarnish further farmings image.
Government should display true leadership in overseeing the orderly introduction of GM. If not, the foundations for farmings next disaster story could be being laid right now.