Papers reveal concerns over ‘medieval understanding of GM crop science’

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Scientific experts were told to consider how to improve the Scottish public’s understanding of science after ministers raised concerns about “medieval” debates on genetically modified crops.

Newly released official papers from 2002 reveal senior ministers discussed a “general failure by the public to understand scientific processes”.

Minutes from a Cabinet meeting on May 1 2002, show a discussion led by the then Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Liberal Democrat Ross Finnie, on the GM crop trial at Munlochy on the Black Isle, Easter Ross.

The minutes refer to recent incidents at the trial, which was subject to a long-running vigil by campaigners, a public petition with thousands of signatures and led to one farmer being jailed for contempt of court for refusing to name those who helped him damage the field of modified oilseed rape.

The cabinet minutes note: “A ‘medieval” approach was being taken in debates, with scientific opinion being dismissed.

“There was also general failure by the public to understand scientific processes.”

Fears were raised about Scotland gaining an international reputation for being “anti-science” and Mr Finnie said he was concerned that the Scottish Executive’s agreed neutral stance on GM crops was “not understood or effective in the face of strong public opposition about GM crop trials”.

The cabinet agreed to have then First Minister Jack McConnell or Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Life Long Learning Wendy Alexander to write to the Scottish Advisory Committee on Science to ask them to “look closely at how to improve public understanding of science”.

The government papers also show toast became a hot topic ahead of cabinet meetings.

An email by a senior government official entitled “Pre-Cabinet Sustenance” states: “It has been put to me by sources very close to the Cabinet that some among its members would prefer toast to shortbread before the Tuesday meetings.”

It asks officials to reply with their minister’s preference and adds if toast wins to arrange “splashing out on a good quality large toaster so that ministers can make their own? That way, they get it nice and hot and we don’t have to have someone running in and out of the kitchen”.

The email concludes: “We shall no doubt have to have another round of consultation about what kind of jam, marmalade, honey, Marmite etc to put on the toast. But we’ll save that excitement for another time.”