U.K. Government Fights Anti-GM Tide

In a move intended to restore public confidence in Britain's ability to regulate genetically modified (GM) foods and crop planting, the government last week announced the creation of two new commissions to advise politicians on the long-term impact of genetic technologies on human health, agriculture, and the environment. But newspapers and environmental groups remain critical of government efforts.

The issue of GM food products exploded into the public consciousness after last summer's reports of the now discredited research suggesting that GM potatoes stunted growth and suppressed the immune system in rats (Science, 21 May, p. 1247). At the time, the inept handling by previous governments of the crisis surrounding the apparent spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease," had already made the British public doubt the government's ability to protect consumers from potentially hazardous products. Keen not to see the British biotech industry undermined by the barrage of negative coverage, Prime Minister Tony Blair set up a ministerial committee to review the country's regulatory framework.

Last week, the committee recommended forming two new commissions to identify gaps in regulation and advise the government on policy. It is not yet clear exactly what the commissions will do, but the Human Genetics Commission will focus on the long-term implications of genetic technologies for human health. The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission will concentrate on the impact of GM crops on farming and biodiversity.

Jenny Maplestone, technical liaison officer of the British Plant Breeders Society--a trade association--welcomed the new commissions. "There is a huge amount of emotion and little fact," she says. "The commissions can put the debate on a sound scientific footing." Friends of the Earth, on the other hand, called the report "miserably inadequate." According to spokesperson Adrian Bebb, "We don't need another layer of committees. That will not solve anything."

John Durant, professor of the public understanding of science at Imperial College London, believes that giving consumers the choice of whether to eat GM foods is one key to quelling the debate. The current generation of GM products offers no obvious benefit to the consumer, he says, "but if consumers could buy low-fat crisps, say, made from potatoes genetically engineered to absorb less fat, you'd start to get a real test of what the consumer thinks of genetically modified products."