What we need: hard facts and a foods' watchdog

February 19, 1999

After a week of claims and accusations about the evils of genetically modified food, what have we learnt about its safety, and about dealing with the growing rate at which new foods are promising to appear on the market?

First is a lesson that should not have been needed. Science operates by means of proof, usually via the experimental method, not by opinion polls or travellers' tales. If there is a verifiable scientific paper proving that some genetically modified foodstuff is harmful, we ought to take notice - no matter how prestigious the author or the institution. A letter to a newspaper making the same point means nothing unless the refereed evidence underlying it is also available.

However, this begs the question of what should happen when a scientist's work does reveal a danger to health? The system designed to ensure that consumers are protected must acknowledge that because hazards can arise from any of a number of directions, the machinery for dealing with them cannot be restricted to considering food of a particular origin, such as genetic modification. The institutional structure for doing this is planning-blighted by the non-appearance of the Food Standards Agency. It is urgent that the FSA be operational soon with powers to deal with new and existing foods.

BSE and E. coli show that old-fashioned food hazards are as menacing as those arising from new technology. This means that the powers of the FSA should be wide and should involve looking at developments at an early stage. A system that merely approves or rejects foods as they are about to enter the shops - as happens now - will not suffice.

The decisions that the FSA and other bodies will have to take on genetically modified foods will be tough ones. The argument that they ought to undergo a trial process more akin to that for drugs than for foodstuffs is appealing. It is to be hoped that the FSA will see the importance of having university and government scientists with the resources to argue against food producers and also, when necessary, against lobbyists opposed to new food technology.

Encouraging this scientific capability will cost money, although the sums need not be large in comparison with the new money now flowing into British science. This week's reports of the big budget supluses that Gordon Brown is facing raise hopes of yet more cash for research.

Arguing for the cash is the real job of science minister Lord Sainsbury. This week he has been wrongly accused of being the food-modifiers' agent in government, when he is not in the ministry responsible (which is agriculture, not industry) and does not chair the cabinet committee on the subject (that falls to Jack Cunningham). People with genuine business and scientific knowledge are an asset to government, and ways must be found to make use of them. Sainsbury has tried to ensure that a proper distance exists between him and decisions from which he might benefit.

But it is tactless of him this week to be urging more commercialisation on government research laboratories (page 9). Like other issues investigated at such centres, food safety needs experts who can stand aside from business pressures and be trusted by all sides. More people who can do this are to be found in universities than anywhere else, with civil service laboratories a close second.

Finally, this has been a thought-provoking week for supporters of Scottish devolution. Research council laboratories are subject to ever more central planning and control. But the Scottish Office, the sponsor of the Rowett Research Institute, has ignored recommendations in the Dearing report and elsewhere that it appoint a chief scientific adviser to improve research coordination. After the fuss in Aberdeen dies down, the Scottish Parliament may decide that research in Scotland needs new management and better long-term thinking.

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