The Reporter
Issue 493, 27 October 2003
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GM crops aren't close to the public's heart – but what do the academics think?


Dr Chris Megone – philosophy
Dr Megone is a specialist in medical and business ethics

My impression was that in addition to the substantive claims made above the overriding response to the Government's commission was that the public wanted more information about GM food and felt insufficiently informed to give a reasoned response to the inquiry. I think that this is a correct public perception. This is a difficult area. Whilst there will be risks atached to any new technology, I suspect that most lay people like myself no little about any of the risks, that they vary considerably from one crop to another, and that a sensible discussion requires a reasonable model for the ethical assessment of risk. Notoriously public assessment of risk is very unreliable (eg public attitudes to road and rail safety). The way in which risk information is presented is crucial, and people do not react in comparable ways to comparable risks.

Taking the specific claims above, as I understand it there is no evidence that eating GM food has ever been harmful. On the other hand the growing of GM crops may well pose wider threats to the environment. So my overall view is that the public (including myself) is probably not sufficiently informed to be able to take a clear view on these matters, that caution is a reasonable attitude, but that different aspects of GM crops/foods probably merit different assessments.

GM certainly shouldn’t be ruled out completely, but there needs to be more informed public debate and a willingness to embrace if risks seem reasonable. However, this requires a full and careful airing of risks and benefits.

The Government should set up a royal commission or the like to advise parliament more fully, but at the same time make moves to stimulate further public debate through, for example, more inter-disciplinary discussion in universities.


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