Select Committee report on GM crops endorses Council recommendation

A new report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee warns that EU regulations for genetically modified (GM) crops are not fit for purpose, and are preventing products approved for safety from reaching the market in the UK and developing world.

The Committee argues that alongside social, political and economic tools, advanced genetic techniques to enhance the quality, yield and resilience of crops will need to be considered in order to tackle the challenge of feeding a growing global population.

In its analysis of the UK environment for agricultural innovation, the report echoes a number of the Council’s recommendations, including the Council’s call (Emerging Biotechnologies, 2012) for a reorganisation of scientific advice within government.

The Committee highlights the need to look beyond the single dimension of economic growth when considering the potential costs and benefits of any emerging technology. It concludes that the Government Office for Science is not best located in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, where its evaluation of risks is invariably dominated by economic considerations.

The Council’s 2012 report recommended bringing government research policy and funding bodies under a senior Minister, free from departmental responsibilities, to ensure that research properly reflects all the objectives of government, rather than those of a particular department.

The Committee calls on the Government to “set out how the Nuffield Council’s work on emerging biotechnologies has informed its research policy. We are particularly interested in how it has responded, or intends to respond, to the Council’s call for structural reorganisation.”

In order to respond better to claims of funding bias, the Committee calls for greater clarity on the allocation of public funds in scientific research. The Committee refers to the Council’s 2014 report The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK, which highlighted the need for funding bodies to communicate clearly about funding strategies, policies and opportunities, and information about past funding decisions, particularly in areas where there are common misconceptions.

The Committee highlights the important role of public dialogue, and references the Council’s recommendation (Emerging Biotechnologies, 2012) that policy concerning emerging biotechnologies should be informed by a “public ethics”, based on securing public good.

The Committee also references the Council’s recommendation in 1999 (GM Crops: the ethical and social issues, 1999) for the establishment of an independent biotechnology advisory committee to consider scientific and ethical issues together with public values associated with GM crops. The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, established with this remit in 2000, was abolished in 2004. In its report, the Committee calls for a permanent ‘Citizens Council’, responsible for considering and providing advice on the potential social and ethical impacts of developments in this area of research.

As part of its inquiry, the Science & Technology Select Committee heard evidence from Council member Sir Roland Jackson, who has previously blogged about the inquiry on our site Why are we still discussing GM like this?

Former Council member Professor Ottoline Leyser and Professor Andy Stirling, a member of the Council’s Working Party on Emerging Biotechnologies, also gave evidence to the Committee, representing the Royal Society and STEPS Centre respectively. The Council submitted written evidence to the inquiry in April 2014.

See the associated blog post by Peter Mills, Assistant Director – Plant biotechnologies: are we ready for the enlightenment?

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