GENETICALLY modified (GM) crops have been a source of controversy since they first emerged in the late 1990s and were immediately branded “Frankenfoods” by opponents. The sight of campaigners clad in bio-hazard outfits mounting “direct action” protests and trashing GM test fields became a common sight across the UK. It proved enough see GM products disappear from supermarkets.
The public debate also seemed to disappear for a decade or so. But as new global challenges emerged, not least the prospect of feeding an expanding world population, so the benefits of GM crops have been revisited. The appeal of crops which could prove resistant to drought and reduce soil damage in often scarce fertile third world land seem obvious.
This why the SNP government’s decision to announce a GM ban in Scotland has prompted such concerns among the scientific, business and farming communities. And the more we learn of the Scottish Government’s thinking, the less convincing it appears to be. The First Minister was forced to admit it was not taken on the basis of scientific advice, but instead to safeguard the reputation of Scotland’s £14 billion food and drink sector. But a spokesman for Nicola Sturgeon was unable to say yesterday what kind of economic impact – if any – had been undertaken to establish this. Opposition calls for the evidence base for the ban to published were similarly dismissed.
Last week one Scotland’s most eminent scientific figures, Professor Hugh Pennington, warned of a danger that top experts may be weary of working with the Scottish Government over its seemingly hostile approach to science. The worrying failure to fill the post of chief scientific advisor to the Scottish Government, after a recruitment drive earlier this year, hardly provides assurance on this front. Governments of the day must take decisions after due consideration of scientific research evidence. Even public opinion on GM, though, appears far more nuanced than it was a generation ago. Polling evidence last year suggested more people in the UK feel the benefits outweigh the risks with GM.
Even the “clean and green” case for the ban appears undermined by the fact that GM is already widespread in Scotland’s imported cattle-feed which is often based on GM soya and maize from South America.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the case for this ban should be revisited and the hard evidence for banning GM crops should be put before the public. If none is available, the decision should be reconsidered – with the involvement of scientists. That may be humiliating for the Scottish Government. But if an error of judgment has been made, this issue is too grave to carry on regardless.
FOI move must avoid persecution
PRIVATE schools have played a central role in the delivery of Scottish education for centuries. In Edinburgh, about a fifth of pupils attend fee-paying institutions and many can rightly claim to be the country’s finest seats of learning.
But such a prominent role in public life brings with it certain responsibilities. It is in this context that information commissioner Rosemary Agnew’s call for parts of their activities to be open to Freedom of Information (FOI) do not appear unreasonable. These institutions provide a public service, a realm which is poised to fall into the realm of extended FOI laws. Areas such as the curriculum, child welfare and parts of their governance seem a justified area for FOI to cover.
It does open fundamental questions about the boundaries of the state’s reach into the private realm. Independent schools – as the name suggests – were established as autonomous from government control. But as the Scottish Council of Independent Schools admit, any communication with government, inspectorates, regulators, already fall under the auspices of Scotland’s FOI laws.
As privately funded institutions, though, there seems less of a case opening up their finances to FOI scrutiny.
It is important to guard against any sense of persecution emerging against private schools. So the prospect of further regulatory change must be open to a full and open debate and come under the appropriate scrutiny of Holyrood. This should mean any move to cover these institutions under FOI laws will proceed in a reasonable and proportionate way.