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									GM Crops: GM Nation?

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

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

      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 winter-
      sown 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.                                    It is this
      debate that I will focus upon over the next half hour or so.

      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.       In developing its design, we kept four
main principles in mind:

   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

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

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

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.

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

      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

               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

                       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

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,
   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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