Food for thought on genetics

November 10, 1995

I would like to clarify remarks attributed to me about decision-making over genetically engineered foods (THES, October ). While I appreciate the points made in your leader about the case for a new national council, with which I am in sympathy, we must recognise that such an institution will come too late to contain the considerable concern about already advanced developments in this field. The voluntary sector is especially angry at the process whereby critical dissent over product development and research has been neutralised and ignored.

Everyone can understand that in a time of restricted budgets and intense competition for public funds, fuelled not least by the Research Assessment Exercise, the attractions of industry funding are considerable. I sought to stress that many academics are unhappy with the implications of this reliance upon contracted work. Compared to the billions of pounds expended on pursuing biotechnology, tiny sums have been given belatedly to debate the ethical, political and economic implications of such research.

Decision-making on what products come to market or how they are, or are mostly not, labelled as genetically modified organisms is no light matter and should have been discussed at length over many years. In making the point about "rent-a-professors", I was less inclined to criticise academics who have little choice but to work for commercial interests, to draw attention to the lack of public control over what might be called the terms and conditions of their contracts and the long-term direction of fundamental science in this area. Even the recent Government Technology Foresight report on the food sector appeals for more independent voices in the food sector as a whole "who can present a broad and unbiased view".

Polls suggest that consumers want more information and are uneasy about biotechnology foods, so failure on this account is not something that commercially-funded academics can dismiss as none of their business.

Tim Lang Professor of food policy Thames Valley University

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