Social issues and GM crops
Social issues and GM crops

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Social issues and GM crops

5.3 GM Nation? The public debate

The key objective of the national dialogue on GM was to allow the exchange of views and information - members of the public would presumably learn more about the issues; experts and policy makers would learn more of the reasoning behind the public's concerns.

Question 16

Can you think of any problems involved in running such a dialogue?


One problem is the difficulty of sampling public opinion in a representative way, trying to ensure that those involved constitute a representative cross-section of the public. Another problem, given the strongly polarised views on the issue, might be how to encourage a meaningful two-way debate, with both sides listening.

Whether the debate that did occur was successful in solving these problems is a matter of some contention. With that in mind, it's worth examining precisely how the debate was structured.

An independent 11-member Steering Board had executive control; their independence was meant to guarantee a debate at 'arms length' from Government. The make-up of the Board aimed to reflect 'the full spectrum of opinion on GM issues'. In November 2002, the Board launched an initial eight foundation workshops, five in England and one in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The foundation workshops involved selected members of the public, none of whom had significant previous involvement in GM issues, i.e. there were no 'stakeholders'.

For comparison, a ninth workshop was held in Norwich, involving only those already active in the debate - half were supporters, half opponents. The nine workshops were to capture the range of concerns of the public and help frame the issues for debate, i.e. to help set the agenda. They were also used to frame the 13 questions that were used to assess the outcome of the later, full-scale debates. You may have already come across these questions in Activity 1 of S250_1 Gene manipulation in plants.

Click on 'View document' below to review the 13 questions.

View document [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

'Stimulus' material was developed, including a video that consisted in the main of footage of conversations between groups of farmers, consumers and scientists. Written stimulus material was made available via a workbook, CD-ROM and interactive website.

The material attempted to show a range of representative opinions rather than provide information. The extract printed in Table 2 gives you a sample of the style of the material. (If you wish to view the full material, it is available by clicking on 'View document' below

View document

Table 2 Extract from 'Why GM?', stimulus material developed for the GM Nation? debate.

2.1 Why genetically modify food? Sharp differences in perspective on the need for GM, and what benefits and costs it brings, lie at the heart of the GM debate.
Views for Current GM crops provide environmental, economic and indirect health benefits. In the future they will provide direct health benefits as well. It is important to evaluate and develop GM crops that will help support the world's population in a truly sustainable manner and to help farmers in this country and elsewhere to contribute to this goal. GM crops can benefit the environment by reducing the needs for pesticides and fossil fuels. Future GM crops that can be grown under environmental stresses (heat, cold, drought) will help countries ( including developing countries) to improve their food security in a way that is affordable and less damaging to the environment.
Views against GM will not 'feed the world'. The current food crisis is a problem of distribution not quantity. The evidence so far does not show GM crops lead to reduced use of chemicals. Anything that GM can do, other methods can also do,without bringing risks to the environment. The debate has to be widened beyond a focus on GM alone,to look at .the whole question of how we produce our food.

Question 17

On the basis of this brief extract, what is your reaction to this style of presentation?


Many users were critical of the document: the 'for' and 'against' format runs the risk of polarising debate, in that two sides were clearly identified and that alignment to one or the other was implied to be necessary. The material was felt to lack 'depth and substance' and to many, the lack of scientific information was surprising. (It was significant that none of the organisations that were commissioned to work on the booklet were willing to be associated with the final product.)

The GM Nation? debate proper took place in three 'tiers'. Tier 1 consisted of six major regional debates, three in England and the remainder in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each meeting was fully booked, in halls that had capacities of between 100 and 200. The format of each meeting was the same, with a preliminary showing of the video and subsequent assembly of the audience into 'round-table' groups of about a dozen. A single independent facilitator guided each group through questions specified in the resource booklet; the meeting finished with a general feedback session, with each table electing their own facilitator.

A cascade of Tier 2 and Tier 3 meetings were initiated, of variable format. Around 40 Tier 2 meetings were held by regional and county-level local authorities. Tier 3 consisted of what might best be described as 'grassroots meetings', differing hugely in terms of scale and location - including, as fans of The Archers radio series will recollect, one set in the fictional village of Ambridge. Estimates of the number of Tier 3 events range from 400 to 700. Given that such meetings had to take place within a specified six-week period, the supply of speakers was limited; in particular, those who could present the pro-GM stance were under-represented. There is general agreement from those who attended such meetings that both in terms of numbers attending and the general tone of the debate, anti-GM views were dominant.

Printed feedback forms, including the 13 questions you answered in Activity 1 of S250_1 Gene manipulation in plants, were provided to all participants and an on-line version was made available. In all, 37 000 feedback forms were returned and 24 609 people visited the website, 61% of whom submitted forms on line. 1200 letters or emails were received by the Steering Board.

Ten closed 'focus group' discussions were run at the same time as the public debate. These excluded individuals with any prior involvement with the subject. Each group met twice, and in the two week interim, participants were asked to explore the GM issue individually, using resources that they located from newspapers and websites. These were termed 'narrow-but-deep' (NBD) groups and were designed to act as 'control' groups, to balance the likelihood that the self-selecting participants at the public meetings were not representative of the 'silent majority'.

As already mentioned, the debate was initially announced at the end of May 2002, but a number of administrative delays meant that the main public phase of the debate was confined to a brief six-week period in the following year (during June and July 2003) - a good deal shorter than originally intended.

Activity 5

0 hours 30 minutes

Now click on 'View document' below to look again at the GM Nation? survey. Has your opinion changed in the light of the study of this course?

View document


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