Europe must take care not to foster an anti-science culture, health commissioner David Byrne has warned.
Speaking at a conference on European risk perception, Byrne said the public had to learn to base their opinion of food safety on science rather than fear.
"If we fail to make progress, there is a very real danger that an anti-science agenda may take root in European society."
He said that this could "lead to a society hampered and restricted by a collective neurosis; lacking in self confidence; resistant to innovation and unwilling to embrace change."
To this end, said Byrne, "a key feature of my approach to policy formation is that it should be underpinned by reliable science."
But he added that the scientific community will have its work cut out to get the public on its side.
"The scientific community is often viewed as being remote from the people."
As regards genetically modified foods, he said "the science-based message simply fails to get across."
"Citizens seem, by and large, to have made up their minds."
"Further attempts at public persuasion might even prove to be counter-productive if citizens feel they are being leant on or otherwise coerced into changing their views."
Speaking at the same conference, the Spanish agriculture and food minister Arias Canete backed up Byrne's comments.
He said that scientists based their opinions on the probability of risk, whilst the public were influenced by a number of less predictable factors.
These included the degree of control they felt they had on a situation, and whether or not a new product was manmade.
And he added that "risk is often perceived as danger by a large sector of the government."
His German counterpart Reanate Künast said that governments should be open about gaps in their scientific knowledge.
She said there were situations, particularly relating GMOs, in which governments have to talk about risk "without having full scientific information available."
She said governments should have the courage to say their policies might be changed in the future "if science demands it."
Published: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 14:18:00 GMT+01