Social issues and GM crops
Social issues and GM crops

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Social issues and GM crops

5.3 The outcomes of the public debate

Box 2 contains an edited version of the Executive Summary of the document GM Nation? Findings of the Public Debate. This is a lengthy summary, but it is worth exploring in some detail. The unedited version can be found on [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Box 2: GM Nation? Findings of the public debate

1 People are generally uneasy about GM

Across the different elements of the debate, participants expressed unease about GM. They were uneasy not only about issues directly related to GM technology but [also] about a range of broader social and political issues. The mood ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection. Despite the range of expression, among people who chose to take an active part in the debate, these attitudes far outweighed any degree of support or enthusiasm for GM.

Our analysis of the NBD element suggests that among this sample of the general population people are less emphatic and less definite in their first response to GM issues. [Participants] readily confirmed that they did not feel that they knew much about GM. Although they have strong anxieties about some risks from GM, particularly towards the environment and human health, they are more willing to accept that GM may offer some benefits. However, their predominant mood is one of uncertainty towards GM.

2 The more people engage in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns

The NBD sample also suggested that when people in the general population become more engaged in GM issues, and choose to discover more about them, they harden their attitudes to GM. Although they are more willing to accept some potential benefits from GM (especially medical benefits and other advantages for developing countries) they become more doubtful about the others and they express more concern/greater unease about all of the risks most frequently associated with GM.

3 There is little support for early commercialisation

There is little support for the early commercialisation of GM crops. Among active participants in the debate, just over half never want to see GM crops grown in the UK under any circumstances.

The NBD sample suggests that the general population does not share [this] unconditional opposition. However, it does suggest that the general population would prefer caution: GM crop technology should not go ahead without further trials and tests, firm regulation, demonstrated benefits to society (not just for producers) and, above all, clear and trusted answers to unresolved questions about health and the environment.

4 There is widespread mistrust of Government and multinational companies

Alongside arguments over the potential risks and benefits of GM itself, both the open debate and the NBD element also highlighted a series of political issues, manifested in a strong and wide degree of suspicion about the motives, intentions and behaviour of those taking decisions about GM -especially Government and multinational companies. Such suspicion is commonly expressed as a lack of trust. [There is a] suspicion that the Government has already taken a decision about GM: the debate was only a camouflage and its results would be ignored. The GM debate also reflects a weakening of faith in the ability or even the will of any Government to defend the interest of the general public. This was supported by the way in which people cited past disasters, especially BSE. They carried a double lesson: first, that Government may not have adequate knowledge and advice to help them take the right decisions; and second, that Government can be too close to producer interests.

The debate also highlighted unease over the perceived power of the multinational companies that promote GM technology, and of such companies in general. People believe that these companies are motivated overwhelmingly by profit rather than meeting society's needs, and that they have the power to make their interests prevail over the wider public interest, both at home and throughout global society.

When given the opportunity to engage in GM issues, people do not rely exclusively on official sources or everyday media. They choose sources that they trust and that mean something in their personal life.

5 There is a broad desire to know more and for further research to be done

In all parts of the debate, both from active participants and the NBD sample, people expressed a very strong wish to be better informed about GM from sources they could trust. They wish to be able to resolve for themselves the contradictions and disputes, claims and counter-claims, in the existing body of information, science and research on GM issues. They want a corpus of agreed 'facts', accepted by all organisations and interests. They also want confidence in the independence and integrity of information about GM - the assurance that it does not reflect the influence of any group with a special interest for or against GM (including Government and business). There was a general feeling that no one knows enough at the moment and that much more research is necessary.

6 Developing countries have special interests

There was a 'debate-within-the-debate' on the potential role of GM for developing countries. In all parts of the debate, there was at least an initial assumption that GM technology might help developing countries produce more food and offer them medical, social and economic benefits. There was then a clear divergence between the views of active participants in the debate and those expressed in the NBD sample. The former rejected, by a majority, the idea that GM technology would benefit developing countries: the latter supported it, and their support slightly increased after people got more engaged in GM issues.

However, in the context of the developing world, opposition to GM was based less on negative feelings towards GM than on the view that there were better and more important ways to promote development, including fairer trade, better distribution of food, income and power, and better Government.

On the issue of benefits to the developing world, people were particularly sceptical about the will of multinational companies to deliver them.

7 The debate was welcomed and valued

Although there was a widespread suspicion that the debate's results would be ignored by Government, people in all parts of the debate were glad that it had happened. People expressed their appreciation for the opportunity not only to express their own views, but to hear those of other people, including experts, to ask questions and acquire new information, and to take part in stimulating discussions. In spite of their suspicions of Government, people expressed a real hope that their efforts in the debate would influence future policy.

It is useful to explore some of the issues raised in the Executive Summary in a little more depth, calling on further information in the main body of the report and from sources critical of GM Nation?.

The summary makes clear that many of the participants were sceptical as to whether their views would have any influence.

Question 18

According to the summary, why where participants sceptical?


There was a widespread view that the Government had already made up its mind about GM crops. By that logic, the debate was little more than 'window-dressing'. There was a good deal of suspicion about the Government, usually talked of in terms of a 'lack of trust'; the motives of the multinational companies in the forefront of GM development were also regarded with suspicion.

All the elements of the debate were conducted on a very short timescale, which made it more difficult to organise meetings. A number of organisations felt that this meant that the right quality of information could not be provided to the public. Furthermore, the timing of the debate was such that information from the FSEs, and the Science and Economic reviews was not available (Section 4.1).

In all three tiers of debate, many more people were 'cautious, suspicious or outrightly hostile' about GM crops than were supportive towards them. A key issue is whether such anti-GM views accurately reflect the views of 'ordinary people'. Those who attended Tier 2 and 3 meetings were 'self-selecting', rather than representative, and already held views about GM. Here's what one critic of the events had to say about the 'non-scientific' nature of the survey:

But the large size of the sample does not overcome one glaring problem with it. It is, as even its authors concede, a self-selected sample, and therefore is almost certainly not random. As a self-selected sample, it is probably comprised mostly of those with strong opinions on the subject. After all, if you don't give a damn, why would you go to the trouble of writing a letter to a survey course telling them that you don't give a damn? The fact that tens of thousands of the sort of people who get worked up about GM wrote in to say that they get worked up about it tells us nothing much about the rest of the population, especially when one considers that none of the GM Nation? budget was spent on advertising, and so most of the people who knew about it (before the results hit the headlines) were the activists.

(Campbell, 2004)

Opponents of GM technology criticised the lack of publicity too, arguing that many who would have expressed hostile views were not aware of the debate. However, whatever the shortcomings of this debate, other means of gauging public opinion have revealed a comparable degree of public anxiety about GM crops and food.

A common argument against GM crops involves the expression of the precautionary principle (as seen in earlier topics). The GM Nation? report summarises the principle as that 'no major technological change should be introduced into the environment and into society until its impacts, including long-term ones, are known and measurable'.

Question 19

Can you identify any strengths and weaknesses of the precautionary principle?


A strength of the precautionary principle would be that it provides maximum reassurance of safety. A major weakness would be that it is unlikely that any fully reliable data set could ever fully quantify the level of risk to human health or to wildlife, in every possible circumstance. Absolute proof of safety is impractical. Many would argue more pragmatically that the absence of apparent harm offers the next best thing. Most technologies have associated elements of uncertainty; banning their adoption would very substantially limit the pace of technological innovation.

The tendency to favour precaution shown by the public was one of several concerns that became evident during the debate. Other concerns included freedom of choice, the power of the multinationals, and 'doing right' by developing countries. What the report says about this plethora of issues is illuminating:

The public do not view GM as a purely scientific, or environmental, or economic, or political or ethical issue. All of these aspects are important to them. It follows that the public accept no single arbiter of decisions to be made about GM. They do not regard science and the scientific method, or economics and economic analysis, or academics or politicians, or any other discipline as a single source of evidence and guidance. The public seek and trust expertise and authorities that accord with their own arguments and values.

Any debate over a new technology such as GM, has therefore to take in the widest possible range of factors. In the broadest possible terms, the key question becomes 'what type of society would we like to achieve and how might new technology help to achieve it?'

The sociologist Alan Irwin picks up this point, in a way that provides an interesting summary of some of these issues:

But this isn't just about the risks. The question is: why would anyone accept additional risk - no matter how improbable - if the benefits were not clear? This view that risks make no sense without matching benefits emerged during the GM debate. Whatever the risk, if the need for a new technology has not been demonstrated, why go ahead?

I attended one of the regional GM meetings. Of course, others might have been taken over by hysterical hordes, but what I saw was a mature discussion among mature people. What took place in Harrogate was a calm and intelligent reflection, a serious treatment of serious issues. Surely we should be encouraging that kind of engagement rather than presenting it as a backward slide?

In my experience, there is very little anti-science feeling among the general public - but there can be a sort of 'anti-public' feeling among some of those who claim to speak for science. Members of the public will often express caution about the advantages of new science and technology. But it is no use muttering about Luddism when people are simply asking how society will gain from new medical technologies or biobanks. To some degree, I can understand scientists' impatience to get ahead with what they see as significant progress. Nevertheless, other voices have a right to be heard, without being dismissed as hysterical.

So what's the answer? First, let's recognise that science is too important to be left to scientists alone. We should accept that scientists don't have the monopoly on rationality. Those who are critical of public opinion would do well to join the next consensus conference, citizen's jury or regional debate (although they may have to wait since all of these are in short supply). Once their prejudices about the public are put to one side, they might just find that they have something to learn as well as contribute.

Next, we should appreciate that risks can't be separated from the contexts in which they occur. In the case of GM, that means considering the perceived influence of US companies and the feeling that there are better solutions to world poverty than another technological fix. Honest reflection on the ethical and philosophical issues should not be labelled as procrastination.

Finally, we could move to a culture where public opinion is seen as an essential constituent of progress - rather than as an impediment. Doesn't the representation of the public as risk-averse suggest a decidedly arrogant posture in the face of expressed concerns? Rather than representing citizens as risk-averse, we should be engaging more thoroughly with what people actually want from technical change. Of course, this is no easy option - but there is no sustainable alternative.

(Irwin, 2004)

We have spent some time discussing the GM Nation? debate. Does the experience help inform how future debates of this type - on nanotechnology, for example - might be conducted to better effect? A common criticism is that the GM Nation? debate took place 'too late to influence the direction of GM research or to alter the institutional commitments of key players'. In recent years, a number of commentators have called for processes of public consultation that take place in advance of ('upstream' of) a developing technology. For example, the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineers report on nanotechnology calls for a 'constructive and proactive debate […] at a stage when it can inform key decisions about their development and before deeply entrenched or polarised positions appear'.

Controversially, perhaps a genuine debate, sufficiently far upstream, ought to include at least the possibility of deciding not to go ahead with one or more aspects of new technology.

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