By Roland Jackson, Executive Chair - Sciencewise
The Commons Science and Technology Committee has published today its report on 'Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution'.
The title of the report is in itself an interesting reframing of the original enquiry on 'GM foods and application of the precautionary principle in Europe', seeking to move the debate beyond entrenched positions on 'GM', however that term may be understood. And it is to the framing of discourses on genetic modification to which the report gives emphasis, including a whole section on public information and discourse. From a Sciencewise perspective this is the most pertinent section of the report, envisaging a significant role for Sciencewise in supporting these discourses.
The report takes a decidedly robust position on the safety - to human health and the environment - of GM crops, coming to the conclusion that the scientific evidence for safety to date is clear and unambiguous. But it acknowledges the importance, in making policy and decisions, of factors other than the scientific, although it is likely that the science will remain contested despite the Committee's conclusions.
Here, and following the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on Emerging Biotechnologies, the Committee envisages a substantive role for public information and dialogue, supported by Sciencewise.
Several specific recommendations are made:
1. That Sciencewise should support the National Academies in developing an information hub on emerging topics in science and technology. The Committee recognises that no source of information will be value-neutral. The challenge here will be to acknowledge and involve an appropriate breadth of perspectives in framing, choosing and presenting the information in ways that can carry wide credibility. As I said in my oral evidence on behalf of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, quoted in the report, while the voices of academia and business are strongly heard across Government, those from wider civil society tend to have to shout from the sidelines as they are not well represented in Government structures. This remains for me a weakness within current innovation systems and policy.
2. That the Government and the Food Standards Agency, with advice from Sciencewise, review communications on genetic modification to ensure they are framed in a way that encourages constructive public debate. As Professor Guy Poppy of the FSA stated in his evidence we are already in discussion and look forward to extending this.
3. That the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, with a broadened remit to include cultivation of all novel plants, should set up a standing Citizens Council with the support of Sciencewise. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence is taken as a model here.
4. That the Government itself should use the springboard of the current small-scale public dialogue on the UK food system, which is supported by Sciencewise, as the basis for a more substantive dialogue on the future of the UK food system.
With regard to the last two recommendations, the Committee was probably not aware of the Citizens Panel just now being set up with the support of Sciencewise by the Global Food Security programme (in which I declare an interest as I chair the Steering Group for the Panel). Any Citizens Council developed by ACRE, or wider dialogue initiated by Government, could usefully build from this initiative.
Finally, the Committee supports a move to a trait as opposed to process-based regulatory system for new crops, analogous to the Canadian system, and its suggestion for a broader role for ACRE is a step in that direction. As the Committee acknowledges, this would take considerable time and effort, given the political capital tied up in the current EU system. Yet here is a real opportunity for public deliberation, in the UK and across the EU, to help shape new regulatory processes.