GM debate a 'missed opportunity'

This summer's public debate on GM issues was an "imaginative and innovative" exercise which nevertheless fell short of what it should have achieved, according to a report by the House of Commons Environment Committee.1 The main blame, it says, rests with the Government's decisions to set the debate an "absurdly tight" deadline and give it "paltry" funding.

The GM debate was the brainchild of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, and was the UK's first major test of a large-scale participatory approach to evaluating public sentiment towards a novel technology. Its significance therefore extends beyond GM issues, although the Government's handling of the results may well influence attitudes to any similar exercises over contentious environmental issues in the future.

The debate took place over six weeks this summer, and involved some 600 public meetings attended by around 20,000 people and ten discussion groups. Feedback forms were returned by more than 36,000 people (ENDS Report 345, p 30 ).

The results were generally unfavourable to the commercialisation of GM crops, although anti-GM sentiment was less powerful among members of the discussion groups than among the self-selected participants in the public meetings and those sending in feedback forms.

The biotechnology industry's Agricultural Biotechnology Council responded by claiming that 70% of the feedback forms had been orchestrated by campaigning groups. However, Professor Malcolm Grant, who chaired the debate steering board, told the Environment Committee that analysis of the returns had yielded "no evidence" to suggest this. "The sheer volume of response that we had suggests a much more broadly based participative process," he said.

Nevertheless, Professor Grant conceded that the debate, while much exceeding his expectations, had engaged fairly limited groups of mostly well informed people but had not informed and engaged the wider public beyond. Several factors were responsible:

  • Funding: An investigation by the steering board revealed that similar exercises in New Zealand and the Netherlands - countries which, the Committee notes, have populations one-sixteenth and one-quarter of the UK's - had cost around £2 million.

    Here, the Government initially offered £0.25 million, and only after much lobbying increased the sum to £0.5 million. But even after this increase the initiative's budget was "severely constrained", said Professor Grant, with the publicity budget "running on empty".

    "I have to say were you to ask me would I do it again I would say absolutely not. Within those constraints I would not do it," he told the Committee.

  • Timetable: The Government set a firm deadline of the end of September for the report on the debate to be completed, and subsequently refused to budge. After preparation time, this left just six weeks for the debate itself - even though "advice that we had from other experiences elsewhere in the world" suggested that it would need to run for around three months, said Professor Grant.

  • Other strands: The Government promised a "two-way interaction" between the debate and two high-level reviews of the economics and science of GM crops. In the event, this failed to materialise - the economics review was published with the debate in its final week, and the science review three days after it ended (ENDS Report 342, pp 10-11 ).

    The Government also initially pledged that the debate would be able to consider results from the farm-scale evaluations of GM herbicide-tolerant crops - though it had rowed back from that commitment before the debate began. In the event, the FSE results were not published until October (ENDS Report 345, pp 27-31 ).

    Professor Grant told the inquiry that he would have preferred to have the debate extended, enabling it to be enriched by the three studies - and the Committee itself says that it was "highly regrettable" that this was not done.

    The budgetary and timing restrictions had knock-on effects. The steering board was in effect left with no choice but to use the Government's Central Office of Information as its prime contractor. The COI had little relevant experience, and board members found themselves having to do much of its work for it.

    Likewise, preparation of supporting material for the public events was rushed and the end-product unstimulating. "It was very fortunate that we were able to get anything out at the end at all," said Professor Grant.

    He also complained that Ministers had failed to honour an undertaking to support and publicise the debate. He told the Committee with feeling: "So great is our independence from the Ministers that they have not yet written to thank the steering board for its work in the debate."

    The Committee broadly concurs with his analysis, and has urged the Government to set out in its response "exactly how it will take into account the outcomes of the debate in its decision-making about GM technology." It must also, the report says, "allay the suspicion that, having agreed to undertake a public debate, it did as little as it could to make it work."

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