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					GM Crops: GM Nation?

Introduction The Agricultural, Environment and Biotechnology Commission advises Ministers on matters concerned with the consequences of adopting new technologies into agriculture and their impact on the environment. Since its inception in 2000 it has been considering the question of genetic modification of agricultural crops. Our first report „Crops on Trial‟, was published in September 2001. It reviewed the farm scale evaluations that were at that stage underway. During the preparation of that report it became clear to us all, if we had not realised it before, that the context in which we (and others) had been considering these issues was and remains highly charged. There are

profound disagreements amongst interested parties and society as a whole. These disagreements encompass views about the novelty, the speed of development, and the transformative potentials of GM technology and the uncertainties over what its use may bring. There is also the turbulent politics of GM, including now formal action by the United States Government in the World Trade Organisation against the European Union. All of these issues combine to continue to make the GM topic a controversial one. Commission members bring some shared but often, different values to bear on the issues; and we do not always arrive at the same conclusion when weighing up the options. This should not be surprising since the membership is drawn from representatives from the public, - consumers, farmers, the biotech and seeds industry, and the biological and social sciences. So being acutely aware of the different views in society about GM as we formulated our conclusions to „Crops on Trial‟, the Commission recommended to Ministers that they should have a wide public debate of the issues surrounding GM.


The Government’s Initiatives to Facilitate Debate In 2002 the Government accepted the Commission‟s advice and sponsored three separate but linked initiatives to facilitate and encourage debate. The Prime Minister‟s Strategy Unit undertook to evaluate the

potential cost and benefits of GM; the Chief Scientist was asked to undertake a review of the science of GM; both studies were asked to focus on the concerns being expressed by the public; and thirdly, it asked and paid for an independent Steering Board to run a nation wide GM debate. The cost/benefit study was very comprehensive: its main conclusion was that the benefits of growing the GM crops that are likely to be commercially approved initially, are marginal and highly dependent upon public attitudes towards them: if consumers won‟t buy them then farmers will not grow them. But it also indicated that as the technology developed there could well be opportunities for its application when customers could identify clear benefits. The science review has also been comprehensive and has taken evidence from a wide range of scientists and stakeholders. It identified the technical benefits arising from GM science and the potential benefits for farming and the environment but also identified the uncertainties and gaps in knowledge about the potential impacts on health and the environment, but particularly on the environment. These broad conclusions have not changed significantly after the review also took account of the published results of the Farm Scale Evaluations. The FSE trials were set up to measure essentially the effect of the GM herbicide tolerant cropping systems on wildlife. The results of the spring grown crops of maize, sugar beet and oilseed rape were published in October 2003; those for wintersown oilseed rape are expected to be published later this year1. The FSE


“Growing conventional beet and spring rape was better for many groups of wildlife than growing GM herbicide-

tolerant (GMHT) beet and spring rape. Some insect groups, such as bees (in beet crops) and butterflies (in beet and spring rape), were recorded more frequently in and around the conventional crops because there were more weeds to provide food and cover. There were also more weed seeds in conventional beet and spring rape crops than in their GM counterparts. Such seeds are important in the diets of some animals, particularly some birds. However some groups of soil insects were found in greater numbers in GMHT beet and spring rape crops. In contrast, growing


results have now been considered by ACRE2, who has advised Ministers on their implications. But “The Scotsman” newspaper recently highlighted, in a report on the work of Dr Ruth Levitt, an ESRC Senior Research Fellow in the University of London, the point that „many questions about GM are not about hard facts but about values and arguments that are construed very differently by the interested parties‟. It was these arguments and values that the Commission felt needed to be captured to provide a more comprehensive analysis of GM issues and in particular the ethical issues. And given the complexity of some of the science, provide an insight as to how the public sets about trying to assess the potential benefits of GM crops and food on the one hand and the possible risks to human health and the environment on the other. The „GM Nation?‟ Debate was an attempt to do this: to capture the public‟s views and opinions and the reasoning that lay behind them. debate that I will focus upon over the next half hour or so. It is this

On-going Issues However, it is as well to recognise that while the debate was going on there were several specific issues being very actively considered by the Commission and others that undoubtedly affected the nature of the debate. These were that in the event of commercialisation taking place, how could GM crops be managed to co-exist with other agricultural crops so that consumer choice could be delivered and if things were to go wrong who would be liable and under what conditions would they be liable? It is a combination of a lack of resolution of these issues at a UK level but more particularly at a European level that has in part contributed to the frustrations of the international community and especially the USA. In

addition, to secure choice for the consumer, there has been a continuing evolution of the Regulations concerning traceability and labelling by the
GMHT maize was better for many groups of wildlife than conventional maize. There were more weeds in and around the GMHT maize crops, more butterflies and bees around at certain times of the year, and more weed seeds.”

Advisory Committee for Releases into the Environment


European Commission.

While there is now a degree of convergence

within Europe there is a considerable disenchantment by others within the international community about Europe‟s decisions and their potential impact on world trade.

There have of course also been revisions in the regulations governing the commercialisation of GM crops resulting in a new Directive, 2001/18. Long-term effects and indirect effects can be taken into account as well as the short term cumulative effects of growing GM crops. However, though the regulatory regime has been to some extent broadened it still pays no lip service or otherwise to public opinion. Despite this, indeed perhaps because of this, the Commission felt it important that a public debate should be a recognised component of the Government‟s decision-making process. It also reflects upon the remit that the Government had given the AEBC. As our Chairman has said, „this was to draw into discussion some of the leading opinion holders, and to allow them around a table, to have that discussion at a level and at a depth which was impossible in other forms of public discourse. The aim was to try to ensure that people came to the Commission, not representing a constituency view-point but came by virtue of their own intelligence and their own ability to engage with other persons interested in the debate at the highest level‟. How could this

general proposition be extended more widely to include the public and be meaningful in terms of providing insight and advice to government?

The Debate In responding quite quickly to the Commission‟s recommendation to hold a debate the Secretary of State invited the Commission to set out what that meant. Essentially the Commission wanted to try to provoke an activity in which the members of the public would be engaged. As our Chairman has said it was not an activity to be confined to the proverbial „chattering classes‟ or for that matter to the „great and the good‟, or to academics, or simply between the activists and their opponents. There was a wish to involve and engage those who so far had not actively been involved. It was apparent that „out there‟, there were a great many people whose

views were unknown; there had not been a forum in which their views could be drawn out and heard. The challenge was to find ways of doing so - independent of Government.

So the Government agreed that the public debate should be conducted at arms length. It invited the Chairman of the AEBC to Chair a Steering Board for the debate, a Board that he had absolute freedom to select. At no time during the lead up to or during the debate was any pressure put on the Chairman by the Government as to the course the debate should take or to its outcomes. However, there were two aspects by which the

Government set the framework for what was possible: these were in relation to the extent of funding for the debate and it‟s timing. The Steering Board thinks that decisions about both were flawed.

To some extent these problems were alleviated through protracted negotiation and discussion but not wholly to our satisfaction. The funding was doubled and the timing was extended. But from the outset there was a lack of integrated management between the three strands of the Government‟s initiatives - the economics analysis, the science review and the public debate - that inevitably failed to deliver an optimal timing solution and certainly one which failed to meet the aspirations of the Steering Board. We wished to ensure that the outcomes of the economic study and the science review and the results of the FSEs could feed into the public debate. Had that been possible it is fairly certain the outcome would have been different and the extent of public involvement would also have been different.

However, the timing was not a matter for which the Steering Board had ultimate responsibility. The Secretary of State wished to have the

conclusions of the debate delivered by the end of September 2003, and the devolved administrations wished to delay the debate until after their elections. These constraints required that the debate start not earlier than the beginning of June and end by the middle of July.


Principles, aims and objectives In organising the debate, we agreed an overall aim, namely: “to promote an innovative, effective and deliberative programme of debate on GM issues, framed by the public, against the background of the possible commercial production of GM crops in the UK and the options for possibly proceeding with this. Through the debate, provide meaningful information to Government about the nature and spectrum of the public's views, particularly at grass roots level, to inform decision-making.”

As the Steering Board, we wanted the debate to be a unique and innovative nationwide exercise. main principles in mind: In developing its design, we kept four

a) the debate should give people new and effective opportunities to deliberate on the issues, with access to the information people may want and need in order to do so. It would not be an opinion polling exercise or a mini-referendum, although there would be an opportunity for people to register their views on the issues without attending deliberative debate events;

b) the public should as far as possible frame the issues and questions for debate, (the Foundation Workshops) to give people some confidence that Government or particular interest groups would not dictate what could or could not be discussed and to ensure that the issues would be expressed in terms accessible to the general public;

c) to try and involve people, who had not previously expressed a view on GM issues, in debate activities, particularly,

deliberative meetings; and


d) to throw light on the question of whether the open debate activities had been 'captured' by special interests, as some feared might happen, we undertook a narrow but deep research component. I will say more about this later.

We also emphasised the importance of a Government commitment to listen to the debate, to persuade people that it was worthwhile taking part.

The Foundation Discussion Workshops The principle that the public should frame the issues was given effect by the creation of nine discussion workshops throughout the UK organised by Corr Willbourn Research and Development3.

The workshops suggested that people rarely thought about GM in their daily lives and that many felt that they lacked not only information about it, but the technical and scientific knowledge to understand such information. Although GM evoked considerable anxiety and suspicion, people could still envisage positive benefits. They welcomed the idea of a debate but were suspicious of the government‟s readiness to listen. People wanted not only more information but the opportunity to assess whether GM was necessary, what benefits and losses it might produce (and for whom), and what would be the long-term consequences of accepting it or rejecting it. More facts alone would not provide this opportunity: it also required ethical, value and subjective judgements.

Participants in the eight grass roots workshops assessed GM in terms which were familiar from their daily lives, such as food, health, consumer choice and politics. Six broad themes emerged as a key framework for the debate: food; choice; need for information; uncertainty/trust; targets and intended trajectory; ethics.


Corr Willbourn Research and Development. A report on the Foundation Discussion Workshops conducted to inform the GM Public Debate. January 2003.


One of the workshops that had people from both sides „actively involved in GM‟ produced agreement that the debate should disseminate “the facts” about GM but disagreed over what were the pertinent facts.

The Stimulus Material Drawing on the results of all the workshops the Steering Board identified 13 separate questions on the possible costs and benefits of GM crops, covering a range of environmental, economic, consumer, health, and ethical issues. These questions were used in the debate feedback forms and in the “Narrow But Deep” research element of the programme. They were used by the Steering Board to focus the debate and to start to generate the stimulus material and information, which could be used to try and inform and promote the debate. The results of the Foundation Discussion Workshops were also used to structure the work of both the economic study and the science review.

Stakeholders were invited to become involved in this exercise. We wanted to have material that would inject some excitement into the debate and provoke people to think at a reasonable depth about GM issues. This was an exercise that both the stakeholders and we found extremely difficult. We employed a firm to help us produce the material in language that was meaningful to the general public, easily readable and digestible. Perhaps inevitably this meant it was stripped of all passion, interest and actual stimulation and became a rather anodyne, unattributed, bland set of propositions.

Not surprisingly this material has been criticised as failing to stimulate as was intended: it also tended to mix opinion with fact in ways which many members of the scientific community thought was not a sound basis for a proper debate. Because of the way it was structured it also tended to polarise the arguments; there did not appear to be any middle ground; nor was it possible to attribute the statements to specific people or organisations. Nevertheless, it was used as the stimulus material: it was produced in the written form accompanied by an introductory video, in the

form of a CD-ROM and as well as forming the basis of a web site. All of this was designed to encourage people to discuss and come to individual conclusions about the questions that the foundation workshops had suggested as being important. Despite its faults the stimulus material

appeared to help in that process. Our purpose was not at any stage to conduct a referendum but rather to try to foster through dialogue and debate, a thinking and reasoning process.

The Debate Meetings This was enabled through three types of meetings. First, six promotional regional meetings were organised throughout the UK by the Steering Board. These were meetings where people were sat at tables in groups of about ten and encouraged and facilitated to use the stimulus material to discuss amongst themselves the issues and conclusions that might be drawn. Many people felt uncomfortable with this approach. Their

expectation had been for a staged debate between opposing points of view about which they would decide and then vote. That was not our intention.

Our intention was that the debate would be between all the individuals attending the meeting. The participants were, of course, self-selecting. During discussions around the tables, which varied enormously, it was possible to question others, to probe and to provoke argument and explore the information provided either by the stimulus material or those sitting at the table. Many of our respondents completing the feed-back

questionnaire concluded that this was successful, worthwhile and enjoyable process: they welcomed the opportunity.

Following these six promotional meetings there were a further 40 meetings organised in collaboration with local authorities which used a variety of approaches in addition to the one that I have just described. Beyond

these meetings we invited people to set up their own meetings. Organisers were provided with stimulus material and asked to ensure that participants completed the questionnaire.

These were self-initiated

meetings: we were not controlling them; indeed we had difficulty in tracking the very great many that took place. At the end we undertook an

independent telephone audit and we are satisfied that in excess of 600 meetings took place throughout the country with at least 30 people attending each meeting.

There has, not surprisingly been much criticism of these meetings. At worst criticisms that they were hi-jacked or that they were set up by organisations with only one particular interest; or at best, that participation was unbalanced in terms of those for, against or undecided about GM. On the other hand the experience of many of us attending a range of these meetings was that most participants were interested and exercised enough to get engaged at a level beyond that which was purely related to being a member of an NGO, professional organisation or special interest group, but rather were prepared to think more deeply about GM issues and their implications than perhaps they had anticipated.

It was of course an open-ended process in which about 20,000 people took part: it did provoke people to think and to participate but it was never going to be a wholly reliable cross-section of public opinion. It was

apparent from the beginning that the letter writers, the e-mail writers and the participants in self-selecting meetings were more likely to be people who were engaged in public life and/or activists in a particular area of policy. It was unlikely to capture those who had previously been uninvolved. The ‘Narrow but Deep’ Research Component This is why the Steering Committee decided that alongside but separate from the broad context of the debate there should be a „narrow but deep‟ research component. We asked Corr Willbourn, who had conducted the original Foundation Discussion Workshops, to set up ten further Group Discussion exercises amongst the general public. The sample was constructed to give broad coverage across the general public population. A total of 77 people took part.

Each group met twice during June or July 2003 with a facilitator, using a very similar approach to the Foundation Discussion Workshops. In their first session, the participants were introduced to the issue of GM and the debate, and provided with the GM Nation? booklet and CD-ROM. They were invited to devise ways for them to continue to engage in issues about GM, and think and talk about it before meeting again in about two weeks‟ time. They were given a daily diary to use as they pleased to collect their findings and record their thoughts. Participants used the time between sessions in different ways, collecting information from a variety of sources. At their second session, they reported the results of their activities on GM and discussed and debated the issues they thought most important.

At the beginning of each session, before any discussion, each group was asked to complete the thirteen closed questions of the debate feedback questionnaire. Their replies, and their discussions in each session, give broad “before and after” pictures of their views on GM and suggest whether and how the general public might change their responses to GM issues in the light of greater engagement.

As we have said in our report a sample of 77 people is too small to generate quantitative data representative of the UK population, however, we are confident that it is qualitatively reliable. Furthermore, the data do show reliable changes and differences between the sessions. We believe that the Narrow But Deep element provides evidence of grass roots views and attitudes that might otherwise have been unheard during the debate.

The outcome of this component was very interesting. There appeared to be no „silent majority‟ as had been suspected. Despite the very different approaches used there appeared to be a confluence of attitudes between the outcomes of the broad debate and this „narrow but deep‟ component of the programme. It was not an exact mapping, of course, but the way in which the attitudes and opinions changed during the „narrow but deep‟ study did reinforce the view that as people became better informed the more definite did they become in their opinions about GM.

Outcomes Overall the GM Nation? Debate elicited some 37,000 individual responses from people attending around 600 meetings of various kinds around the UK, or visiting the website or otherwise sending in their views.

The six key messages that arose from the GM Nation? Debate were as follows:  people are generally uneasy about GM;  the mood ranged from caution and doubt through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection; these attitudes far outweighed any degree or support or enthusiasm for GM  the more people engage in GM issues, (the evidence from the „narrow but deep‟ study) the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns become;  the more people choose to discover about GM the more convinced they are that no one knows enough about the long-term effects of GM  there is little support for commercialisation;  among active participants in the debate just over half never wanted to see GM grown, others want more research to establish minimal levels of risk: the ‘narrow but deep’ were less opposed but nevertheless would prefer caution  there is widespread mistrust of government and multi-national companies;  this was manifested in a strong and wide degree of suspicion about the motives, intentions and behaviour of


those taking decisions about GM – especially government and multi-national companies  people believe that companies are motivated

overwhelmingly by profit rather than society’s needs  people are suspicious about any information or science which emanates from GM companies, or which is funded by them  there appears to be a weakening of faith in the ability and even the will of any government to defend the interest of the general public  there is a broad desire to know more and for research to be done;  a wish to be better informed about GM from sources they can trust  a general feeling that no one knows enough and that much more research is necessary  developing countries have special interests in GM that need to be addressed;  a ‘debate within a debate’ – potential benefits set against the potential risks and the view that there are better and more important ways to promote development – fairer trade, better distribution of food, income and power, and better government

Those involved welcomed and valued the debate4.

The GM Nation? programme of debate elicited some 37,000 individual responses from people attending around 600 meetings of various kinds around the UK, or visiting the website or otherwise sending in their views. In addition to the „open‟ programme of deliberative debate, a series of reconvened „narrow but deep‟ discussion workshops took place in parallel in June/July 2003, were held with invited participants who had not before been actively involved in activities for or against GM. Reports of these different activities, the overall report of the debate, and the initial desk research on public attitudes conducted in autumn 2002 may all be viewed at


The overall outcome was perhaps no great surprise; it rather confirmed the findings of other investigations on public opinion towards GM. However, it was an exercise that perhaps tapped into a greater number of people than before and gave them the opportunity to engage in a process that was deliberative, informative and opinion forming and with a promise that it would influence decision-making. The texture and nature of the debate that took place through different approaches also provides insight into the way in which people think about issues around GM and how they relate them to their daily lives.

Are there Lessons to be Learnt? The Chairman of the Steering Board has previously outlined three areas with which I agree that require to be considered:  where there is an initiative that combines fact finding, review and appraisal of a technology with a debate, there needs to be an overall strategy where each can benefit from the other. In particular the debate should take place against the background of established facts and informed appraisal – timing of the different components in relation to each other is therefore essential; planning of this did not happen and the full benefits of debate were probably not realised:  while self-selection is an inherent feature of open debate perhaps a greater emphasis therefore requires to be given to the more controlled and managed process of the kind undertaken in the „narrow but deep study‟ – many of us feel that there was much more that we could have learnt if we had extended this component of the debate – it could have improved reliability and provided more detailed insights and perhaps a more profound statement of opinion; and  funding; this was by any standard a major constraint on our ability to reach out to the public – we simply were unable to afford extensive advertising for the event – we were highly dependent upon others and it is remarkable as to what was achieved in terms of participation with such little resource applied to publicity. Compare


our £0.5m with the £2.0m spent on a similar exercise in the Netherlands and the £2.0m spent by the New Zealand government on its Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

But as the AEBC Chairman said at the Edinburgh October 2003 Innogen conference5 on the outcomes of the GM debate and evidence, ask yourself this: „is there any other country in the world that at this time, when the Government and the devolved administrations have to make an important decision on the commercialisation of GM crops, has such a wealth of material on which to base that decision? It has now available to it the report of the public debate, the report of the Prime Minister‟s Strategy Unit on the economics of GM, the Chief Scientist‟s review of the science, the AEBC‟s report on co-existence and liability, the FSE results and the advice from ACRE.

By the end of next week we ought to know whether our governments have been able to devise a policy that reflects the extent to which they have listened to public opinion, as they have also had to take account of the scientific and economic analyses they now have in their hands. Will they have been able to formulate a policy that is far-reaching, imaginative and inclusive or will their decisions merely reflect the legal straightjacket provided by EU regulations and directives? We shall have to wait and see.6


Precaution and Progress: Lessons from the GM dialogue, Report on the 13 November Innogen conference, Edinburgh, 6 SRT footnote : The Government‟s decision eventually came on 9 March 2004. It allowed the planting of a GM herbicide tolerant maize used for animal fodder. It refused to allow the equivalent GM oil seed rape or sugar beet which had both shown negative impacts in biodiversity in the FSE‟s. It also stipulated various conditions. These included that further tests on the GM maize would be required during the cultivation if the company wanted to grow them after October 2006, and that the GM sector should be liable to compensate non-GM growers in the event of accidental gene flow. The UK government and the devolved administrations are drawing up detailed liability provisions. In the event, the company which had applied for the licence to grow the maize, Bayer Crop Science, decided on 31 March not to proceed with growing in the UK, saying that the licensed period was too short to be economically viable, and given the uncertainty about the conditions which would be applied.


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