PROPOSALS to ban the growing of genetically modified crops risk "constraining" Scotland's contribution to research, according to a group of scientists.

The warning is contained in a joint letter sent by the organisation Sense About Science to Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead.

It comes after the Scottish Government said last week it will request an opt-out from European consents for the cultivation of GM crops, including an EU approved variety of genetically modified maize and six other GM crops that are awaiting authorisation.

Mr Lochhead said at the time that a ban on growing GM crops would "protect and further enhance" Scotland's "clean, green status".

But letter sent to him yesterday said banning their use in Scotland could mean the country would be "prevented from benefiting from future innovations in agriculture, fisheries and healthcare".

The correspondence was signed by a wide range of organisations, including Edinburgh, Dundee and Robert Gordon universities, the Roslin Institute, National Farmers Union, Science Council and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

It said: "Your announcement that the Scottish Government proposes to ban cultivation of all genetically modified crops, regardless of current or future scientific evidence about the benefits of particular applications, risks constraining Scotland's contribution to research and leaving Scotland without access to agricultural innovations which are making farming more sustainable elsewhere in the world.

"As you and others have indicated, this decision is political and not based on any informed scientific assessment of risk. This is of course your prerogative. It is an approach to evidence that surprises and disappoints many scientists and non-scientists alike."

Sense About Science said genetic modification of plants had a "20-year track record of safe use worldwide".

It added: "Scientists are developing new plant breeding techniques that may be classified as GM in the future. Scottish researchers and agricultural challenges, such as potato blight and tree diseases, have informed that scientific development. Will they now be prevented from making further contributions in future?"

The letter, signed by almost 30 organisations, said they were extremely concerned about the "potential negative effect" on science in Scotland.

Mr Lochhead said: "I will be happy to meet representatives of the science community and reassure them that these changes will not affect research as it is currently carried out in Scotland, where the contained use of GM plants is permitted for scientific purposes, such as in laboratories or sealed glasshouse facilities.

"However, just because GM crops can be cultivated in Scotland it doesn't mean they should be.

"We respect the views of those in the scientific community who support the development of GM technology and the debate on the future of GM will no doubt continue.

"However, Scotland's £14 billion food sector has a reputation for a clean and green image across the world and allowing the cultivation of GM crops could damage that unique selling point."