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eMJA: Horton, Genetically modified food: consternation, confusion, and crack-up
Genetically modified food: consternation, confusion, and crack-up The controversy over genetically modified food exposes larger issues about public trust in science and the role of science in policymaking MJA 2000; 172: 148-149 "The great pioneers of our subject were tormented by crises of belief and uncertainty, which we need to understand in facing our own problems today. It is only today, after 70 years, that such understanding is coming within our reach -- and may soon slip out of our reach."1 Did this desperate plea come recently from a scientist in defensive retreat? A scientist, perhaps, embroiled in the debate about genetically modified food, who flinched on reading that Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai had found an "unexpected proliferative effect" of genetically modified potatoes on rat gut?2 Not, thankfully, on this occasion. These were the opening remarks of a respected senior botanist, C D Darlington, in an issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London devoted entirely to the manipulation of genetic systems in plant breeding. He was writing over 20 years ago. Interference with our systems of food production has always aroused public alarm, occasionally with justification. From soaking crops with pesticides to taking short cuts in the feeding of cattle (bovine revenge being wreaked on Britain with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), food is a lightning-rod for public fears about scientists' allegedly reckless indifference to safety. But, even by these high standards of public sensitivity, the debate surrounding genetically modified organisms became the scientific controversy of 1999,3 a debate that is summarised in this issue of the Journal, with restrained good temper, by Huppatz and Fitzgerald on one side 4 and Leeder on the other.5 Four larger issues have been exposed by these kinds of exchange in the last months of the 20th century, and the arguments they incite threaten the fragile remnant of trust that remains between the public and scientists.

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