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Monday, October 18, 1999 Published at 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK


Ministers 'ignoring public' on GM food

Trials of GM crops sparked protests from environmentalists

The government has underestimated the intelligence of the public over its policies on genetically-modified (GM) foods, says a new report.

The BBC's Nicola Carslaw: "The government says it has encouraged open debate"
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) report, published on Monday, also says the general public believes the government is biased in favour of GM foods. Many people believe the government wants GM food to be a success because the biotechnology industry may boost the UK economy.

The authors of the report say ministers believed their policies were based on sound scientific grounds and they treated public resistance as irrational.

Science not enough

Dr Frans Berkhout: "Science can't answer all the questions"
Dr Frans Berkhout, Co-Director of the ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme told the BBC that a scientific approach to safety assessment was not enough.

"You need to bring political and ethical judgements to bear - that's central to understanding whether these risks are acceptable," he said. "And to do that you need to bring people into the process and people have very sophisticated and sensible attitudes to these kinds of risk."

UK Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, also speaking to the BBC, said he supported involving the public: "The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes issued a consultation paper only last week on measures to increase the openness of the safety assessment of GM foods and to encourage more public participation."

Michael Meacher: "I strongly support openness and transparency"
He added: "The fact is that no GM food is approved unless our top scientific advisers are sure it is as safe as its conventional counterpart."

Public ahead of scientists

The report says ministers must change their philosophy on the "science of risk" in order to handle future problems better than past ones, such as the BSE crisis.

The report's editor, Alister Scott, said: "If anything, the public are ahead of many scientists and policy advisors in their instinctive feeling for the need to act in a precautionary way."

Food under the microscope
"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."

The authors suggest that new forms of decision-making could include citizens' juries, where a selected group evaluates different possibilities, or larger consensus conferences. Other methods could include focus groups and deliberative polls, where people are briefed on an issue and then interviewed as part of a survey.

[ image: Experiments suggest GM potatoes damaged rats' stomachs]
Experiments suggest GM potatoes damaged rats' stomachs
The report comes out only days after the scientific research which sparked the intense debate over the safety of GM foods was published in the health journal, The Lancet.

Dr Arpad Pusztai suggested his experiments showed that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered stomach and intestine damage. But the experiments were heavily criticised by fellow scientists.

Harry Kuiper from the Netherlands State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products said: "The experiments were incomplete, included too few animals, and lacked controls. The results are difficult to interpret and do not allow the conclusion that the genetic modification of potatoes accounts for adverse effects in animals." <P

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