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scientists comment on the launch of the GM public debate

The Science Media Centre asked scientists to comment on the eve of the launch of the public debate on genetic modification.

Professor Julia Goodfellow, Chief Executive, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said:

“I would encourage everyone to take part in this public debate on GM. This is an important opportunity for taking account of public opinion on the use of GM technology, and will contribute a great deal to future developments in this area. The UK is a world leader in plant science, and it is important that we use our knowledge and understanding of how plants work for the benefit of society through the use of appropriate technologies.”

Dr Mark Tester, Head of the Stress Physiology Group, Department of Plant Science, Cambridge University, said:

“I am very concerned that the public debate will remain dangerously polarised, rather than work towards a consensus. This polarisation hides the true complexity of the applications of GM. Generalisations cannot be made about GM crops – what genes are put in will determine both the risks and the benefits. The safety of each GM crop for humans and the environment should be assessed for each crop, on a case-by-case basis.”

Dr Sandy Knapp, Botanist, Natural History Museum, said:

“I think the opportunity for us all to discuss the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms is a great way for us all to talk together about science and society. Talking a problem through, especially if it is done rationally and calmly, is the best way to reach good decisions. Our world is changing before our eyes – population grows and people need to be fed, clothed and housed, while natural habitats are being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate. We cannot hide our heads in the sand. We owe it to the next generations to discuss new technologies in this open, inclusive way.”

Professor John Lawton, Chief Executive, Natural Environment Research Council, said:

“GM crops are a knotty issue and discussions so far have not been graced with clarity. I think people should be able to play a part in the Government’s policy decisions, and should feel free to discuss all the issues. For those reasons, I welcome the public debate.”

Professor Chris Lamb, Director, John Innes Centre, Norwich, said:

“A relatively few strident voices, who claim to represent the majority, have for too long dominated the debate over GM crops and the extreme polarisations that have resulted have been very unhelpful in unpicking a complex set of serious issues. I hope that the broad public will make full use of the GM Nation initiative to inform themselves of the scientific and social issues that surround the use and non-use of GM crops and to engage in a robust and reason-based debate over whether, and how, GM crops should be used to benefit UK society.”

Julia A. Moore, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, said:

“Citizens want to have a say in making individual choices and the societal trade-offs related to the application of new technologies and science. Only one in five adults is able to define DNA. Fewer still can say “deoxyribose nucleic acid,” but that doesn’t mean that citizens can’t or shouldn’t have a legitimate point-of-view on how new knowledge is used.”

Professor Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics, School of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Surrey, said:

“GM technology may be used to design new crops resistant to pests, drought or disease. These crops are badly needed in developing countries where millions of children still die of malnutrition. As far as we know, food prepared from these crops carries no greater health risk than conventional food. Yet resistance to GM food prevents Third World farmers from taking advantage of this technology because they fear the loss of our markets. The public debate gives everyone the opportunity to hear the issues and decide for themselves. Its outcome may have a huge impact on the future food security of the entire world.”

Professor Chris Leaver, Head of the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, said:

“I personally welcome the public debate on GM and encourage people to participate. However the outcome of the debate should depend upon understanding and sound science, not upon political prejudice exploited by non-representative campaigning groups for their own political ends. GM technology will neither feed the world nor eliminate poverty, but action is needed now to address these challenges. If we are to satisfy the real and legitimate environmental concerns associated with modern high input agriculture and the threat of global warming and still feed the increasing world population in a sustainable manner, we must assume responsibility for fully evaluating this technology to contribute to the security of future generations.”

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