Public is right to be wary of GM, so let's open debate

October 19, 2000

Britain's plant scientists are a diverse group, to judge from responses to our poll on the genetic modification of crops, but their concern at the public hostility they face is shared. The BSE crisis has been an awful experience, proving people right to distrust apparently authoritative pronouncements. The history of nuclear power shows that insiders ignore objectors and the public at their peril.

It is therefore disingenuous and unconvincing for scientists to try to minimise the importance of the technological step represented by artificially shifting genes between species. The long-term effect is impossible to predict, just as no one could tell in advance how cars or computers would alter the world.

But, field trials not withstanding, there is still time for the development of this technology to be managed acceptably. There is no excuse for more episodes like the BSE crisis, where pronouncements were made on the basis of what turned out to be flawed scientific knowledge. People should not be afraid to say that they do not know. Those concerned with the public understanding of science should take on plant GM as a priority. The public may be under-informed but it is not stupid, and debate, even if it seems hysterical, is the way in which public opinion proceeds crabwise towards better understanding, better definition of risks and greater acceptance of change.

This technology, which has got off to such a bad start here, may yet have much to offer: if not in food crops for the rich world, in better crops for arid and polluted land, in pharmaceuticals and in energy production. If the present rows have made scientists more thoughtful, that is to the good. But departing in a huff for the apparently laxer regulatory environment of the United States may not be the answer. Public concern is also rising there - in the litigation capital of the world.

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