Gene crop row mishandled like BSE

18 October 1999

‘Gene crop row mishandled like BSE’

By FWi staff

IN A damning indictment, a new report has likened the governments handling of the controversy over genetically modified crops to its handling of the BSE crisis.

The report, which is critical of the way GM crop trials have been introduced on to British farms, was produced by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The council is one of the most respected government-funded bodies in the UK and its report was written and researched by the governments own scientists.

They recommend a radical rethink of the advisory system controlling the introduction of GM crops and a wider understanding of the associated risks.

The general public are not stupid or ignorant about the risks associated with GM crops but had a sophisticated grasp of the main issues, the report says.

Ministers and biotechnology industry leaders have failed to take on board public concern about GM technology and should take a more cautionary approach.

“Repeatedly, the BSE crisis was mentioned in support of peoples expressions of unease at possible dimensions of biotechnology,” says the report.

It argues that the government and biotechnology companies can get out of the current mess with GM food only if they stop focussing solely on scientific issues.

Simply assessing GM crops and foods against existing agricultural practices is not enough, argues the report, especially when intensive farming is under scrutiny.

One of the researchers on the team, Professor Terry Marsden, from the University of Wales, said better evaluation was needed of the social effects of GM crops.

“GM technologies are likely to further speed up the structural change in agriculture and food supply, making it more difficult for smaller producers to stay on the land.”

Another researcher, Alistair Scott, who wrote the report said the public were unwilling to accept familiar-sounding reassurances about GM safety after BSE.

“If anything, the public are ahead of many scientists and policy advisors in their instinctive feeling to act in a precautionary way,” he said.

Ministers and the biotechnology industry were missing the real point about GM crops by focussing on the detailed scientific and technical issues.

“To assume that the public is ignorant is not only patronising, but inaccurate and damaging,” he said.

The report voices serious concerns about the advisory system regarding GM crops which has been accused of being in the pockets of the biotechnology firms.

It welcomes attempts to make government advisors more accountable but says ministers have far to go before neutrality is restored in the eyes of the public.

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