Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


CHAPTER FIVE: CONCLUSIONS

79. GM technology has the potential to deliver significant benefits to the UK through its application to agriculture and food both in terms of improving the quality of the food we eat and in economic terms. The use of GM technology, like the use of any other new technology, also presents a number of concerns which need to be identified, evaluated and minimised. The role of the scientific advisory system is to inform Ministers' decision making on these matters but it should not be expected to provide the Government with solutions to political dilemmas. We do not believe that the scientific advisory system addresses ethical or value-based judgements. Nor do we believe that it should. Ministers must take such considerations into account in their decision making but must look to other sources for advice on non-scientific matters.

80. Scientific advice is delivered to Ministers who must make decisions based on that advice in the context of wider considerations including their assessment of public values. Yet people's values, which, once formed, may be lasting, can be shaped and modified by information and debate. It is therefore essential that information provided to the public is accurate and debate well-informed. Labels such as 'Frankenstein' or 'Mutant' and sensational media reporting distort that debate and jeopardise rational policy making. In this context it is important that

  • the Government should promote the public understanding of science vigorously;

  • scientists involved in research should be equipped to respond effectively and competently to media pressure;

  • media editors and reporters should establish a code of practice for dealing with scientific information which should be endorsed by the Press Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Authorities.

84. We have been impressed by the robustness and expertise of both ACRE and ACNFP and have no found evidence to suggest that the quality of the advice they deliver to Ministers is other than high. We have identified some structural weaknesses in the advisory system and have made recommendations to address these. In particular, we believe that it is necessary to merge ACRE and ACNFP into an integrated body with the ability to look ahead and to identify scientific developments which may impact on the regulatory regime or Government policy.

85. No human activity is risk-free. We have seen no evidence to suggest that the risks associated with growing GM crops or eating GM crops are high enough to justify calls that have been made for a moratorium; indeed we have seen no evidence to suggest that the risks associated with eating GM food are any higher than those associated with eating conventional food. There are widespread concerns about the impact of intensive farming practices on the environment and biodiversity. If properly managed GM technology can offer a solution to some of those problems although we accept that any such solutions will require responsible management of the technology. It is for the regulatory system to ensure that GM technology is exploited responsibly and therefore we welcome the extension of ACRE's remit to include indirect impacts on the environment and biodiversity. But science cannot produce the clear-cut certainties that would seem to be required to reassure some organisations that have set their face against the technology. There are, quite naturally, areas of uncertainty where further research is required.


 
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Prepared 18 May 1999