Genetically modified crops are already entering the food supply in the UK. But uncertainties remain about their safety and environmental impact. A Working Party of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is considering the ethical, social, and regulatory issues raised by the genetic modification of crops and, in a consultation launched on 7 April 1998, is seeking the views of individuals and organisations on the questions posed by this technology.

Many crops have now been engineered to increase their resistance to insects, diseases or herbicides or to improve their storage properties. They differ from traditionally bred varieties in that they have foreign or synthetic DNA inserted directly into them to confer desirable characteristics. Can we control what happens to this DNA once crops are released into the environment and is the use of antibiotic and herbicide-resistant genes in crops safe or desirable? Are there other, more intangible, objections to increasingly unnatural forms of agriculture? If so, how can they be accommodated?

Can we be sure that UK regulations are sufficient to protect consumers whilst allowing the development of innovative new products? Will it be possible for consumers to choose not to buy modified foods, for whatever reasons they may have? Will developing countries, who have most to gain through improved food security, be able to access the new technology?

All responses will be considered carefully by the Working Party which includes experts in plant genetics, ethics, regulation, the environment, agricultural economics and food policy. The Working Party will produce a report early in 1999 which will help scientists, regulators and policy-makers develop professional guidance and public policy and promote public debate.

Read more: External consultation