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Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group Recommends Ethical Framework for Genetically Modified Crop Development

The Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group has concluded that the genetic modification of crops is not beyond the range of acceptable human activities but has called for a clear ethical framework for practical applications of the science, whether experimental or commercial. Its approach can be summed up as precautionary but not anti-science. The group considers the potential benefits of genetic modification for humankind to be too great to ignore but does not feel it is yet appropriate to grant tenancies for crop trials on Church land given the uncertainties caused by the lack of an ethical framework.

The group draws an analogy with medical and human genetic research, where the limits of acceptable enquiry are clearly defined by reference to an ethical framework. Setting such boundaries could help to address the public's lack of confidence in genetically modified crops. The current regulatory regime is described by the group as fragmented and it identifies some of the areas of public concern not addressed by it, such as assessment of the potential social benefits and potential indirect long-term effects on health and environment. The group recommends the Christian principle of the good neighbour as the key to evaluating these factors. Researchers should ask themselves the question "what is the effect on the spiritual and physical well being of others resulting from our actions in pursuit of this science?"

Given the rapid development of the genetic sciences, an ethical framework is vital to provide a blueprint for acceptable behaviour where both moral values and the light of practical experience are guides.

The group advises:

 the adoption of a precautionary principle framework, as set out below;

where unambiguous scientific proof of cause and effect is not available, it is necessary to act with a duty of care;

where the benefits of early action are judged to be greater than the likely costs of delay, it is appropriate to take a lead and make public the reason for such action;

where there is the possibility of irreversible damage to natural life support functions, precautionary action should be taken irrespective of the forgone benefits;

transparency and accountability should be maintained throughout;

 that public acceptance rests on there being a transparent, independent and robust ethical framework forming part of the regulatory process that sets the boundaries for what constitutes the concept that not all that can be done should be done;

 that the further period of voluntary moratorium on commercial crop growing, affording a "breathing space" in which vital questions can be answered and public confidence can be restored, is welcomed;

 that weighing up the current balance of risk and reward, it reflects prudence and neighbourliness on the part of the Church to exercise some control in the granting of new tenancies to grow genetically modified crops on its land;

 and that, consequently, until further research has been conducted into the ecological risks, new agricultural leases should contain a clause excluding the planting of GM crops on Church land. Applications for tenancies in order to conduct field trials would thereafter be considered in the context of the questions identified by the Group and in the light of continuing reflection.

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Contacts: Arun Kataria 0171 898 1622

Notes for editors

The Church's national investing bodies (The Church Commissioners, The Central Board of Finance and the Church of England Pensions Board) co-ordinate and develop ethical investment policy through the Ethical Investment Advisory Group which reports to the General Synod.

The Group's members are: Viscount Churchill (Chairman); The Revd Canon Hugh Wilcox (Vice-Chairman); The Bishop of Worcester; The Bishop of Wolverhampton; The Archdeacon of Coventry; Mrs Lesley Farrall; Mr Gavin Oldham

The Church Commissioners for England own 52,000 hectares of tenanted farmland.