BioWorld International Correspondent
LONDON - The UK government invited scientists around the world to contribute their views on the safety of genetically modified crops when it launched an independent review of the current state of scientific knowledge, the invitation designed to help it decide whether or not to allow genetically modified crops to be grown in the UK.
In addition to inviting views via a web site, scientists in the UK will be invited to express their opinions at public meetings to be held across country. An independent panel, chaired by David King, the government chief scientific advisor, will assess all the evidence received and publish a report in the summer of 2003. The topics to be covered are genetically modified (GM) food safety, gene flow and deletion, the environmental impacts of GM crops, future developments and the regulatory process.
King said, "The aim of this review is to identify where there is consensus, where uncertainties lie, and where there are gaps in knowledge, to inform both government and the general public."
The science review is one of three parallel strands of a national dialogue set up by the government in an attempt to defuse public hostility to GM crops and foodstuffs. GM crop trials have been sabotaged and GM produce has been portrayed as "Frankenstein food" in some UK newspapers. The other two strands are a series of public debates and an economic assessment of GM crops. The public debates strand is due to report on the state of public opinion in June 2003, while the cost-benefit analysis will be published in spring 2003.
The panel that will review the scientific evidence includes an employee from each of the leading GM seeds companies, Syngenta and Monsanto, and government scientists who have been involved in approving GM field trials, leading critics to question if it is independent. Sue Mayer, director of the pressure group GeneWatch UK, believes the inclusion of these people does not inspire confidence.
"The GM Science Review panel must convince the public that it will evaluate impartially the evidence and existing practice," she said.
King promised there would be no presumptions about the outcome of the review and that the panel would consider all contributions made.
"This presents a challenge to the wider scientific community to present new perspectives and offer fresh sources of knowledge on genetic engineering, particularly focusing on crops," he said.
UK field trials of GM crops are due to be completed next year, and the government has said it will then decide if it will allow them to be grown commercially. Along with the other countries in the European Union, the UK government is under increasing pressure from the U.S. to end the current moratorium on the commercialization of GM crops.
Julia Goodfellow, CEO of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the body that manages publicly funded research, called on scientists working on GM and related fields to contribute to the review. "Science is not a black-and-white issue, and it is vital that we take the full range of scientific and public opinions into our considerations for the future."
Anyone wishing to contribute can do so at www.gmsciencedebate.org.uk.