Advisers seek innovative public debate for next steps on GM crops

The Agriculture and Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) has thrown down the gauntlet to the Government in its first report - warning it to broaden the basis on which decisions are taken about the commercialisation of genetically modified crops, or face the prospect of further destabilising conflicts over the technology.1

The AEBC was set up by the Government last summer to provide strategic advice on the implications of biotechnology in the wake of the controversies over GM crops in 1998-99.

Its first report addresses the so-called farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) which were another offspring of those conflicts. The FSEs comprise a three-year programme ending in 2003 in which the effects on farmland biodiversity of four herbicide-tolerant GM crops are being monitored. The biotechnology industry has agreed not to commercialise the crops until the programme is completed.

The AEBC's 20 members, as well as the seven-strong sub-group which drafted the report on FSEs, represent a broad range of interests and appear at times to have been at loggerheads.

The minutes of one sub-group meeting record that their experience of working together had ranged from "negative and draining, to stimulating, to tough but worthwhile and enjoyable, and to a process in which members had learned to work together despite fundamental differences." One member, Robin Grove-White, has quoted the French philosopher Sartre to characterise how some Commission members felt about their work. "Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre famously said.

Despite the evident tensions, the AEBC has produced a seminal report. Its recommendations would make the process for taking decisions on the commercialisation of GM crops after the FSEs are completed the first testing ground for new forms of public consultation over a strategic issue with wide-ranging economic, business and ethical implications. Similar processes were advocated by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its 1998 report on environmental standards (ENDS Report 286, pp 20-23 ), but have yet to make much headway.

Part of the report deals with official handling of the FSEs. Although they were intended to provide a breathing-space before decisions were taken on commercialisation of GM crops, the AEBC believes that "far from offering reassurance, experience of the FSEs has tended to fuel further concerns.

"Local citizens' reaction to the rationales for, and processes surrounding, particular FSEs at local level may now itself be contributing actively to growing disrespect for the Government's policy," the report warns. "This dynamic is an important one, but under-appreciated by both politicians and officials."

The problem stems from the way in which trial sites - 60-75 per crop over the three years - have been announced. "The absence of consultation, the very short notification [of around four weeks] and the particularly unfortunate location of some of the chosen sites" - including one close enough to a major organic farming centre to turn it into a cause celebre (ENDS Report 316, pp 7-8 ) - "have made it seem that the trials have been conceived and designed in a secretive way," the report says. "Some local people have felt excluded from decisions which they perceive as affecting their environment and compromising their local socio-economic objectives."

The report urges that selection of the remaining sites should provide for effective local consultation. And separation distances between them and organic farms need to preserve current organic farming standards, which allow no GM contamination.

The AEBC's most important recommendations, however, concern what should happen once the FSEs are wound up. They would take official decision-making processes into uncharted waters.

Building on insights from social science research, the Commission contends that the "narrowly-based risk assessment approach to decision-making" on GM crops is at the root of much public concern. Issues about which people feel strongly - ranging from unease about human manipulation of nature to worries about the monopolisation of seed supplies by large corporations and the consequences for farmer and consumer choice - are excluded from the regulatory process.

Describing the UK's political arrangements for dealing with these concerns as "immature", the report warns that "without a higher level of public consent, or consensus, than exists at present, a decision to allow commercial growing of GM crops might offer the industry no more than a precarious basis for proceeding." It urges the Government to use the window of opportunity before the FSEs are completed to take steps to avert further conflicts.

The report chides Ministers on two counts for suggesting that the FSEs are the "final piece in the jigsaw" before GM crops are launched into UK agriculture.

First, the trials are examining only selected impacts on biodiversity of a narrow range of herbicide and crop management regimes over a relatively short period. The AEBC recommends that the results should be complemented by an independent scientific review of other relevant information on effects of the four crops and the herbicides used with them, and on other crop management regimes.

Secondly, the Commission believes it to be imperative that the Government takes into account wider public concerns - and does so after fostering broad debate on the issues.

The existing machinery is not up to the job, it stresses. "At present, there seem to be no avenues for a genuine, open, influential debate with inclusive procedures, which does not marginalise the reasonable scepticism and wide body of intelligent opinion outside specialist circles. We need to harness new deliberative mechanisms, to develop participatory methods of public engagement, together with new capacities within Government and industry for digesting and responding to the implications."

The AEBC has in mind "systematic and large-scale application" of the participatory methods advocated by the Royal Commission - workshops, public debates and consensus conferences, involving interest groups but also reaching beyond them to a wider public.

However, there are potential legal difficulties for the Government in basing decisions on commercialisation of GM crops on factors beyond safety and environmental risks, which remain central to the regulatory process in the recently revised EU Directive on releases of GM organisms (ENDS Report 313, pp 49-50 ).

Although the Directive provides for ethical and socio-economic issues to be considered at EU level, there is, as the report acknowledges, "no obvious machinery for giving effect to adverse conclusions" on these matters in regulatory decisions. The AEBC leaves it to the Government to wrestle with this problem.

One of the thorniest issues should GM crops be allowed on the market will be how to safeguard the interests of organic or conventional farmers who wish to keep their crops free of GM content, whether by cross-pollination in their fields or through seed contamination. Food industry, retailer and consumer interests are also at stake here.

The biotechnology and organic sectors have locked horns over the issue, with no sign of a resolution in sight. "This situation ill-serves the nation's strategic interests," the report notes. "It obscures rather than illuminates debate about the potential for coexistence of GM and other types of agriculture."

The AEBC recommends that the question be tackled by the Policy Commission on Farming and Food set up by the Government in August, and in parallel exercises by the devolved administrations. But it should also form part of the wide public debate sought by the Commission once the FSEs are concluded.

Enthusiasts for GM technology in Whitehall will find the report hard to swallow. But a recent letter to the AEBC by Environment Minister Michael Meacher points to a receptiveness to its message at least in some quarters.

Making it clear that he regards the question of separation distances between GM and other crops as "not simply a matter of science, but equally a question of public acceptability," Mr Meacher asked the AEBC to assess the public mood on acceptable levels of GM contamination in organic food by way of a consultation process. He also said that a contamination level of 0.1% is "much more likely to be acceptable" than the current 1.0% threshold - implying considerable changes to current separation distances and seed purity standards.

The Minister also promised a public consultation as part of the evaluation of the results of the FSEs, with public attitudes to commercialisation of GM crops forming "a crucial part" of the Government's decisions. Further research before commercial planting is allowed has not been ruled out.

Another report currently in preparation by the AEBC may also make waves. It is examining environmental liability for GM organisms - including whether contamination by GM crops should constitute "harm" to be compensated under a liability regime, and the insurability of such risks.

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