Who is in the neutral corner?

July 10, 1998

The British have waited years for a Food Standards Agency, enduring health scares related to E. coli, BSE and salmonella in the interim. No sooner is it on its way than the Department of Trade and Industry decides that it needs its own food worry organisation, to monitor genetically modified foods, whose work will inevitably cut across the agenda of the FSA.

Innovation in the biotechnology field is so rapid that the DTI's panel is certain to have a hefty workload. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is already showing off genetically modified foods at the Royal Agricultural Show, where farmers wanting higher yields may well form a receptive audience for its work.

By contrast, direct action familiar to would-be builders of bypasses and airport runways is now affecting the commercial ambitions of the biotechnology companies. Probably no compromise will satisfy the substantial minorities that have already made up their minds - including the vested interests in favour and the deep greens who will remain opposed.

But the government's attempt to investigate public fears about genetically modified food is a novel one that deserves support. In previous great debates such as that on nuclear power, the backers of a new technology were nonplussed that the public did not appreciate the benefits they were offering, while opponents insisted that the amounts of money and political influence available to industry counted for more than a good economic and technical rationale for their proposals.

Anyone trying to find a way through the plant biotechnology battlefield will find that the front lines are already drawn. As well as the obvious division between those with positions for and against, there are more subtle splits such as that between opposition groups divided by their response to the advertising campaign on the subject being run by biotechnology firm Monsanto.

After the company decided to list information on opposition groups, some decided to go along with being listed to gain access to a much bigger advertising budget than they could afford themselves, while others took the view that they risked being co-opted to the Monsanto publicity machine.

As shown by the "people's jury" on plant biotechnology organised last year by Tom Wakefield, a DTI panel member, this is an area in which people can learn the basics rapidly and form a valid opinion on them. And the recent Swiss referendum on genetic manipulation demonstrated that a technology that seems threatening can be presented to the public in a way that emphasises its potential for good.

If the debate on biotechnology is to flourish, academics need to be involved, responsibly and on both sides. But in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the UK their position is already compromised by the extensive industrial links that all biotechnologists have sought. Some are already bearing financial fruit, as last week's cheque to the University of Nottingham from biotechnology firm Zeneca - for a royalty payment on technology for tomato puree - shows. Governments hoping to foster biotechnology industries have encouraged such links.

As the science gets more expensive, partly because of regulatory and safety costs, the need for big commercial funding will grow. At the same time, the number of independent scientists in a position to express severe reservations about biotechnology from a position of authority will shrink.

Unbiased advice on worrying new technology comes best from universities, preferably ones that have enough financial security to deal fearlessly with pre-emptory funders. Next week Research in The THES will open discussion on the commercial funding of academic research, seeking the methods that work and the deals to be avoided. Please join in.

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