The Scottish Government risks being branded "anti-science" by banning genetically modified crops without any scientific advice or public consultation, an eminent academic society has warned.

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead provoked a widespread backlash from the scientific community when he announced a ban on GM crops to protect the "clean and green" reputation of Scottish produce.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) today issued a call for a "rational debate" on GM, in contrast to the "emotive language" of Mr Lochhead's announcement.

The announcement is "likely to fuel negative public perceptions about GM and related technologies (and) assumes a degree of public hostility to GM that is not supported by recent public attitude surveys," according to RSE.

The announcement "was not taken on the basis of scientific advice", according to the group whose past presidents include renowned physicist Lord Kelvin and former Queen's Botanist Sir William Wright Smith.

The Government said its position is supported by public and business opinion and is similar to other countries such as Germany and France.

The RSE said: "The RSE is strongly of the view that expert scientific advice should be available to government ministers and civil servants when considering policy issues related to science.

"From the ambiguous government responses to the question of whether the Chief Scientific Adviser (Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment) had been involved in the decision to ban the growing of GM crops, it would appear that she was not, despite her evident expertise in this area.

"It is also unfortunate that the Scottish Government's announcement was made at a time when the post of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) had been vacant since the start of the year and there are many vacancies on the Scottish Science Advisory Council.

"This regrettable coincidence could create a perception of an 'anti-science attitude'.

"We are therefore pleased that the First Minister confirmed that a new recruitment process for a CSA would begin towards the end of the year.

"In relation to the issues around GM, and innovative biotechnologies in general, there is a key role for the CSA to play in encouraging an evidence-based debate that enables the public to reach reasoned conclusions on the use and perceived safety of these technologies and their role in tackling many key societal challenges."

Mr Lochhead said: "As the RSE acknowledge, the Scottish Government has taken a longstanding precautionary approach to GM and our decision was taken to protect the clean, green status of Scotland's £14 billion food and drink sector.

"GM crops go through scientific assessment before going onto the EU's authorised list but Scotland is taking advantage of the EU's decision to allow member states and parts of member states to opt out for non-scientific reasons. Many other countries, including Germany - Europe's biggest country - have followed suit and also opted-out.

"Our decision does not affect research in Scotland where we support the development of modern genomics-based plant breeding tools which enable new conventional crop varieties to be developed more quickly and efficiently.

"The Scottish Government fully recognises the important role the scientific community plays in Scotland and the need for on-going engagement and discussion on the major issues facing farming, food production and the environment."

Professor Nigel Brown, a fellow of the RSE, said: "Scotland is renowned for its world-class scientific research therefore it would be regrettable to stigmatise an area of exciting development which provides real scope for global benefit.

"The RSE recognises that the Scottish Government supports science and innovation as the bedrock of the Scottish economy and as a key basis for policy-making, therefore it would welcome the opportunity to contribute to a wider debate around the use of GM."

Yesterday, an influential SNP MSP accused agrochemical firms of designing genetically modified crops that rely on pesticides which could cause cancer and paying "dirty money to support dirty science to make bigger profits".

Rob Gibson, convener of Holyrood's Rural Affairs Committee, asked what GM supporters are "trying to hide" by fighting the introduction of GM food labelling during a debate in Holyrood.