Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


    (a)  Scientists and research institutions must recognise that they can have a major impact on public opinion, particularly when novel products are being considered. It is right that scientists should warn of possible health hazards but they must accept that such influence needs to be wielded with the utmost responsibility (paragraph 27).

    (b)  We recommend that directors of research establishments and university departments should take steps to ensure that all scientific staff are able to respond effectively and competently to media pressure. This is clearly not the case at present (paragraph 28).

    (c)  We recommend media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a Code of Practice which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission (paragraph 29).

    (d)  GM technology and its potential benefits may be permanently lost to the UK unless there is rational debate. The Government must provide leadership in this debate but it is also incumbent upon scientists to present findings clearly and in a manner not open to misconstruction and on the media to report accurately (paragraph 31).

    (e)  To reduce the risk of fraudulent use of GM free labels we recommend that the Government obliges retailers not to claim GM free status unless a full audit trail from seed to supermarket shelf is in place (paragraph 33).

    (f)  It is important that threshold levels for the labelling of GM foods are established and are understood by the public. Thresholds should be open to review as the technology to test for GM material improves. We recommend the Government pursues these objectives in its negotiations with European partners on labelling and thresholds and in other international fora (paragraph 34).

    (g)  The Government should press for international agreement on regulations requiring the separation of GM from conventional crops. These requirements should also be extended to include animal feed and meat products (paragraph 35).

    (h)  We recommend that the Government seeks to ensure that EU regulations permit local discretion in relation to specific farming practices and habitats in any particular region (paragraph 41).

    (i)  We recommend that the Government seeks to establish international agreement on what constitutes a 'valid' scientific reason; and that the definition of validity is based on the precautionary principle. We further recommend that the Government should press for Codex to find a means of reconciling the US, EU and UK approaches to GMO regulation (paragraph 42).

    (j)  We recommend that the Government avoids circumstances where large changes in the membership of scientific advisory committees are required at the same time (paragraph 46).

    (k)  We recommend that the Government rejects calls to include, as a matter of course, representatives of any particular interest on scientific advisory committees concerned with genetic modification technology (paragraph 47).

    (l)  We recommend that the Government rejects proposals to bar employees of biotechnology or food companies from serving on scientific advisory committees. It is vital that appointments to scientific advisory committees should continue to be made by selecting people with the most suitable and relevant expertise (paragraph 48).

    (m)  We condemn the unjust attacks that have been made directly or indirectly against public-spirited scientists who have served the community well on both ACRE and ACNFP. We endorse Mr Meacher's view that the current members of ACRE who are employed by the biotechnology industry have acted properly and with integrity as have members of ACNFP (paragraph 50).

    (n)  We reject any suggestion that scientists' integrity is automatically compromised by association with industry. If scientists from academia or the public sector with research connections to the biotechnology industry were to be barred from the Government's scientific advisory system relating to GM crops and food the Government would be deprived of some of the best scientific expertise available. We agree with Mr Rooker that this would be "totally inappropriate" (paragraph 51).

    (o)  We agree with the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS) which argued that "serious thought ... needs to be given by Government to establish clear guidelines on disclosure of interest [for members of advisory committees] backed by active policies of annual disclosure, clear and transparent procedures for review of disclosures and clear criteria for decisions on whether interests are material" (paragraph 52).

    (p)  The Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government has explicitly set out the need "to involve at least some experts from other, not necessarily scientific, disciplines, to ensure that the evidence is subjected to a sufficiently questioning review from a wide ranging set of viewpoints". We agree. We recommend that such individuals should make up a fifth of the membership of advisory committees (paragraph 53).

    (q)  We recommend the use of the term lay member to refer to experts from other disciplines serving on scientific advisory committees (paragraph 54).

    (r)  We recommend that Government continues to drive for further openness by publishing ACNFP and ACRE papers and data (in full and summary form) and negotiating similar treatment of material from similar committees in other EU states. Such information should be published on the Internet for speed and accessibility as well as by conventional means. Summaries should be provided in plain English. We further recommend that, unless applicants can demonstrate that disclosure would cause commercial harm, all future meetings of ACRE and ACNFP should be held in public (paragraph 56).

    (s)  We believe that there should be a presumption in favour of public disclosure unless applicants can demonstrate that disclosure would cause commercial harm (paragraph 57).

    (t)  We do not believe that it would be either appropriate or practical for ACRE and ACNFP to do anything other than use an applicant's own data in their assessments. We agree with Novartis that "regulation by review of companies' risk assessments works well in pharmaceutical and pesticide regulation" and this is accepted by the public. Where inadequate information is provided, it is acceptable that further research is commissioned and paid for by the applicant (paragraph 58).

    (u)  We recommend that when ACNFP moves under the management of the Food Standards Agency, an appropriate part of MAFF's research budget be transferred to the Agency. Formal links should be established between DETR, the Foods Standards Agency, the Foresight programme and Research Councils so that ACNFP's and ACRE's longer-term basic research requirements can be considered. We recommend that the Minister for Science plays a strong role in ensuring proper coordination between the various research funding agencies and Departmental research programmes in this area (paragraph 59).

    (v)  We recommend that the Government works with its European partners to investigate new approaches to the safety assessment of novel foods and commission appropriate research (paragraph 61).

    (w)  We welcome the Government's decision to extend ACRE's remit to include consideration of the cumulative impact of GM crops on biodiversity (paragraph 63).

    (x)  We believe that Directive 90/220 should be amended so that the cumulative effects of GMOs and their management on the environment and on biodiversity are assessed as part of all approvals for deliberate release (paragraph 64).

    (y)  We welcome the increase in publicly-funded research into the environmental impacts of GMOs. However, the Government's research programme should also take into account the concerns of organisations such as English Nature. It is disappointing that this is not yet occurring and Mr Meacher has undertaken to address this point (paragraph 65).

    (z)  There is already a de facto moratorium on commercial planting in place. GM crops may not be released into the environment without the necessary consent from the Government and no such consents have yet been issued for commercial growing. Government must make it absolutely clear that commercial growing will not be permitted without adequate information from farm-scale trials (paragraph 67).

    (aa)  We recommend that the Government supports efforts to find valid ways of monitoring any long-term impact on health of consuming GM foods (paragraph 68).

    (bb)  Individuals have a range of personal preferences and practices regarding food, some based on ethical or religious grounds. The Government must have a mechanism for addressing these issues; the scientific advisory system does not do so at present nor it is appropriate to require or expect it to (paragraph 71).

    (cc)  Ministers should obtain advice on these other, non-scientific, issues but should not seek such advice from the scientific advisory system. The Human Genetics Advisory Commission, charged with reporting on "issues arising from new developments in human genetics that can be expected to have wider social, ethical and/or economic consequences", provides a good model (paragraph 72).

    (dd)  We recommend that ACRE and ACNFP are merged to form an integrated committee which considers all scientific issues relating to GM food and crops and advises Ministers, Departments and, in the future, the Food Standards Agency. The specific functions of ACNFP and ACRE could then be delegated to sub-committees (paragraph 73).

    (ee)  The integrated committee should have a joint DETR, Office of Science and Technology, Department of Health and MAFF secretariat (with MAFF's role moving to the proposed Food Standards Agency when it is established) with a joint budget and joint departmental responsibility. Departmental Ministers should continue to be responsible and the Minister for Science should have a coordinating role (paragraph 74).

    (ff)  We therefore recommend that the Science Minister, with support from the Chief Scientific Adviser, bring forward proposals for a process audit procedure monitoring the work of all the scientific advisory bodies relating to genetic modification, not only in terms of ensuring that the system works cohesively but also auditing the functions of particular committees from time to time (paragraph 75).

    (gg)  We find this observation worrying, especially as Professor Beringer's concerns on this matter had apparently not been drawn to the Minister's attention. We recommend that the Government looks closely at the staffing arrangements for scientific advisory committees and commits itself to providing large enough secretariats to ensure the efficient working of the Committees. The cost of extra staffing will be small compared with the cost of failure of the advisory system (paragraph 77).

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