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Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK

UK Politics

MPs call for 'rational' GM debate

MPs want research into commercial planting of GM crops

A committee of MPs has warned the government to lead a rational debate on genetically-modified foods or their benefits could be lost to the UK forever.

Food under the microscope
The proposals came in a report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee into GM foods.

Scientific Advisory System: Genetically Modified Food also looks into the appointments to committees and calls for new guidelines on research.

The Commons committee recognises that GM technology "has the potential to deliver significant benefits to the UK" but that it presents a number of concerns which need to be "identified, evaluated and minimised".

It says: "The risk the UK faces, should it prove impossible to return to a measured and informed debate on the issues relating to GM food and crops, is that any potential benefits from GM technology may be lost solely as the result of misconceptions."

The report continues: "The government must provide leadership in this debate but it is also incumbent upon scientists to present findings clearly and in a manner not open to misconstruction and on the media to report accurately."

The government should support efforts to find valid ways of monitoring any long-term impact on health of consuming GM foods, it continues.

The MPs' report was published on the same day that a report by the Royal Society of Medicine found that the research by Dr Arpad Pusztai which triggered the row in the UK over the safety of genetically-modified (GM) food was flawed.

Dr Pusztai claimed rats in his Scottish laboratory suffered damage to their vital organs and immune systems as a result of being fed GM potatoes.

The committee refer to Dr Pusztai in their report by proposing that scientists and research institutions must recognise they have a "major impact on public opinion" and must act responsibly.

The report also suggests:

  • Staff at research establishments and universities should be able to "respond effectively and competently to media pressure".
  • The government should oblige retailers not to say products are GM free unless they followed its process from "seed to supermarket shelf".
  • The government should press for international agreement on regulations requiring the separation of GM material improves.
  • The government must make it clear that commercial growing will not be permitted with out adequate information from farm-scale trials.
  • Media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a code of practice - labels like "Frankenstein" or "mutant" could jeopardise rational policy making.

The committee also stressed its concerns over "structural weaknesses" in the advisory systems such as the government advisory body on GM foods Acre (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment).

The report rejected proposals to bar employees of biotechnology or food companies from serving on scientific advisory committees.

It also condemned "unjust attacks" against "public spirited scientists" who worked on both Acre and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP).

But the government should also take into account the concerns of organisations such as English Nature, the report suggests.

[ image: Call for international agreement]
Call for international agreement
There was also concern that 10 out of Acre's 13 members, including its chairman, will end their term of office this year and will not be eligible for reappointment.

In addition, the MPs noted that insufficient resources and staff were allocated to the support of Acre and that this was causing "serious problems".

The report said: "We recommend that the government looks closely at the staffing arrangements for scientific advisory committees and commits itself to providing large enough secretariats to ensure the efficient working of the committees.

"The cost of extra staffing will be small compared with the cost of failure of the advisory system."

They also recommended that Acre and the ACNFP be merged to form an integrated committee considering all scientific issues relating to GM food and crops and advising ministers, departments and in the future, the Food Standards Agency.

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