5 Public views and the GM Nation? debate
The first genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were created in the early 1970s, but for much of the 1980s biotechnology was a phenomenon confined to the laboratory. In 1988, 'vegetarian cheese', the first food product created using GMOs, was introduced in the UK. This cheese was produced using chymosin, an enzyme derived from genetically modified bacteria, rather than the traditional animal product (rennet). Chymosin derived from GMOs is now used to produce 90% of the hard cheeses made in the UK, but these cheeses are labelled 'GM-free' as the enzyme is completely destroyed as the cheese matures. In 1996 the first proper GM food product, tomato puree derived from GM tomatoes (Flavr SavrTM) became commercially available in the UK and initially the product sold well. On this evidence, with relatively limited public concern and muted media coverage, the introduction of GM products into our daily lives seemed to be a commercial inevitability.
In the latter part of the 1990s, a number of events seemed to trigger a change in public perception of GM crops. Can you recall any significant events likely to have contributed to such a change?
The UK BSE episode raised anxieties about modern agricultural practices and the credibility of scientific pronouncements. Pusztai's experiments (Section 2) provided a focus for sustained media coverage in the late 1990s. You may also recall the creation of Dolly the genetically modified sheep in 1996.
In October 1998, the UK Government brokered a deal with the major biotechnology multinationals that GM crops would not be grown commercially in the UK until more information was available about their possible environmental impact. Approvals for commercial plantings would have to await the results of a series of Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs), designed to assess the environmental impact of GM crops. At about the same time, the EU agreed an unofficial moratorium on the approval of new GM products for food or animal feed.
The increasing apprehension about GM crops in the UK and other parts of Europe contrasts strongly with seemingly more muted public concern in other areas of the world. For the UK, it might have been anticipated that the combined influences of the moratorium and the suspension of commercial growing would have reduced public disquiet. But media attention on the FSEs - which took place between 2000 and 2003 - was especially intense. A number of activists expressed their continued disquiet by destroying parts of these trials, though not to the point where their usefulness was seriously jeopardised (Figure 3).
In May 2002, the UK Government announced the launch of a 'national dialogue' on the subject. The idea first came from an advisory committee, the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), which was keen to see a broader range of evidence feeding into decision making on GM policy than would be provided by the FSEs alone.
This section will outline how this national dialogue was structured and examine its outcomes. There were three main strands to the national GM dialogue, relating to science, economics and a nationwide public debate. The first two elements will be explored very briefly; but the last strand is of particular interest, for what it tells us about the processes of consultation and communication.