UK government under fire from science on GM food

UK: October 19, 1999

LONDON - The British government came under fire yesterday from a
team of its own scientists over the way it is handling genetically
modified (GM) foods.

The experimental technology has provoked widespread fears in Britain of
damage to the environment and public health, and many consider the
Labour government to be overly close to the biotechnology industry.

The Economic and Social Research Council, a team of
government-funded scientists, said the government had underestimated
the intelligence of the public over GM foods and that many people now
believed it was biased in GM's favour.

The council said the public understood the issues surrounding GM
technology - both the benefits and the risks - and that it was time for
regulators to assess the "big questions" of GM, not just the narrow
technological issues.

"Science can't answer all the questions," the council said.

"People have very sophisticated and sensible attitudes towards these kind
of risks. You shouldn't assume they are ignorant or ill-informed," said the

"We just believe that policy-makers, regulators, should treat what the
public are saying seriously and tread cautiously," they said. "Carefully
weigh up all of these risks and do it sensibly."

The government defended its record, saying it had encouraged debate
and brought openness to the process.

It had introduced labelling for GM foods sold in restaurants and shops,
severed links with the industry and was carrying out trials of GM crops with
the full knowledge of the public.

"I very strongly support openness, transparency, involving the public," said
Environment Minister Michael Meacher. "That of course is what we are
trying to do."

But government was aware that opinion was running against GM foods,
heightened by a history of food scares in Britain.

"I quite understand this. The public is sceptical," Meacher told BBC radio.
"We are taking this very seriously."


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