17 November 2000

New-tech seeks acceptance

By Andrew Blake

SCIENTISTS will have to work much harder to persuade sceptics of the benefits of new crop technologies.

Openly relaying the science behind the latest findings will not be enough to swing public opinion.

That was the message from a seminar on the real and perceived risks of pesticides, natural plant poisons and genetically modified crops at the British Crop Protection Conference in Brighton this week.

Unless attitudes changed among the promoters of new technologies, many potentially useful advances could be jeopardised, delegates heard.

Scientists were wrong to assume more information would create a more favourable public reaction, warned Joyce Tait of the Scottish Universities Policy Research and Advice network.

Providing more information often gave opponents further ammunition to fuel their counter-arguments, she suggested.

Much depended on the viewpoint being taken. Scientists and farmers readily accepted the idea that more detailed explanations furthered the cause of advances like GM crops. But for others, where different values held sway, rational argument was likely to be much less effective. Prof Tait highlighted an old Zulu saying: "I cannot hear a word you say, because what you are shows me what you are saying."

Contrary to widespread opinion the coming of a new generation of GM crops with improved food uses would not change public attitudes, unless promoters changed their approach, she believed.

"Those who are developing GM technology appear merely reactive to the strategies of pressure groups. There is a need for them to think more strategically."

The fact that natural plant toxins, or mycotoxins, apparently cause much less consumer fear than pesticides and GMOs was also highlighted. Balancing the pros and cons of pesticide use against the undoubted harm that can arise from mycotoxins was vital, stressed Joel Mattsson of Dow Agrosciences.

New ways of assessing risk from new technologies, such as introducing the concept of probability, were long overdue said Bob Tomerlin of Novigen Sciences.

Evaluating the health hazards of GM foods was a stiff challenge, added Monsantos Mark Martens. The underlying principle was that such products must be as safe as existing foods. But testing was very different to chemical testing.

Scientists must take more account of human nature in the GM debate, suggests SUPRAs Joyce Tait.

Which are more damaging – pesticides or the mycotoxins they prevent? asks Joel Mattsson of Dow Agrosciences.

Think probability not risk, urges Bob Tomerlin of Novigen Sciences.

NEW-TECH ACCEPTABILITY

&#8226 More than scientific rationale required.

&#8226 New generation GM crops no help.

&#8226 Need for better mycotoxin awareness.

&#8226 More pragmatic testing advocated.

Conference talk

US mothers faced a dilemma when choosing fresh apples, according to Dr Mattsson. Their children reject blemished produce. "But they feel guilty because they have been told that what looks good must have been treated with pesticide and is, therefore, bad."