Today in AgBioView: October 8, 2003:
* US and Germany Clash Over GM Policy in Africa
* Ethiopia: Call for Africa to Accept GM Crops
* Fostering Weeds and Bugs in UK
* Sowing Confusion
* Fungal Enriched Organic Milk Anyone?
* GM Public Debate: Context and Communication Strategies
US and Germany Clash Over GM Policy in Africa
- Ehsan Masood, SciDev.Net, Oct. 7 2003
The United States and Germany appear headed on a collision course over the
future of genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa following plans by
Germany to approve a €2 million grant to help African nations develop laws
to ensure that GM organisms are safe.
The move potentially conflicts with a parallel Africa biosafety plan
funded by the United States and led by members of the Consultative Group
on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) (see US boosts biosafety in
The five-year US project was announced in May by the US Agency for
International Development. It will invest nearly US$15 million in
biosafety capacity-building activities in developing countries, including
East and West Africa. Ministries and non-governmental groups are also
expected to participate.
The US-backed scheme takes as its premise the idea that GM crops are safe
-- unless proven otherwise. In contrast, the German-funded project assumes
that evidence is required that GM crops are safe for human health and the
environment before such products are commercialised.
Tewolde Egziabher, general manager of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection
Authority and architect of the German/Africa proposal, says he recognises
that Africa's governments will come under pressure to implement two
biosafety projects based on conflicting philosophies. But he adds that the
German-funded project is the only one to have the endorsement of member
states of the African Union.
Sources close to the German government argue that the US-funded project
will have difficulty establishing credibility in African countries, as the
United States is not a party to the Cartagena biosafety protocol -- an
international agreement to regulate trade in GM organisms, which entered
into force last month. "The principal problem is that the United States
has always been opposed to the protocol," one such source told SciDev.Net.
The three-year German-funded project will help countries in Africa develop
laws and regulatory structures that ensure GM organisms do not pose a
threat to humans or the environment. It will also train scientists,
customs officials, police and judges to meet their countries’ obligations
under the Cartagena protocol.
The project is a partnership between Germany and the African Union (AU),
and will be run by a body known as the African Regional Biosafety
Coordinating Office, based in the AU's secretariat in Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia. The office will be staffed with lawyers, scientists, and
technical experts - mostly from countries in Africa.
Egziabher says project staff will try to convince national governments to
pass biosafety laws based on a model law developed in 1999 and endorsed at
the last meeting of AU heads of state in Maputo, Mozambique in August.
South Africa and Zimbabwe are the only two African countries to have
functioning biosafety legislation, though many more are planning to pass
The requirements of the model law are similar to those in the Cartagena
protocol, but more comprehensive in scope. Under the Cartagena protocol,
for example, an exporting country needs permission from an importing
country to send GM organisms that are intended for release into the
environment -- such as plants or fish.
The African model law, in comparison, recommends that permission be
required to export all GM products, including processed food, animal feed
and medicines. It also contains guidelines on liability and compensation
in the event of transport and handling accidents.
Egziabher says the African Union has also asked the German government to
fund a comprehensive biosafety testing laboratory in Addis Ababa, as well
as four regional laboratories in different capitals.
Ethiopia: Call for Africa to Accept GM Crops
IRIN News, Oct. 7, 2003 http://www.irinnews.org/
ADDIS ABABA (IRIN) - Africa must "seize" the opportunity offered by
controversial genetically modified food, a conference in the Ethiopian
capital Addis Ababa heard on Tuesday.
Biotechnology can boost food production and cut back environmental
degradation, Kingsley Amoako, who heads the UN Economic Commission for
Africa (ECA), told a three-day conference on sustainable development.
"Not enough attention has been paid to impacting the daily lives of
ordinary people,” he told delegates from around the continent." "It is
therefore important that we now focus on exploring the ways in which
science and technology can empower the poor to make beneficial changes in
their own condition."
Amoako noted that a "famine" on the continent had put 38 million people at
risk of starvation, but it had helped focus attention for a permanent and
sustainable solution. He said new technology had a vital role to play in
the agricultural sector of the continent - but so far it was sadly
lacking. Gebremedhin Belay, Ethiopia’s deputy agriculture minister, said
"incentives" must be offered to encourage science and technology in the
Participants in the conference, hosted by the ECA, said that while
biotechnology was not the single answer to the continent’s food crisis it
should be "embedded" in future strategies. They said the potential risks
of biotechnology were outweighed by the benefits it could offer the
"The biggest risk would be to do nothing and let the biotechnology
revolution bypass the continent," said an ECA report on harnessing
technology. "Africa must seize the day as other regions - particularly
Asia - are rushing to catch up."
"Africa, which depends so heavily on agriculture, stands to benefit from
technologies that can increase the production of food, enhance its
nutritional quality and minimise the exploitation of forests and marginal
lands" the report stated. Officials at the conference are urging African
governments to boost investment in biotechnology research and establish
national institutions for risk assessment.
Fostering Weeds and Bugs in UK
- Bob MacGregor
I share Dr. Preston's concern about the illogic in the UK vis a vis weeds
and insects in cropland. I expect to hear a call for banning cultivation
next, since "steel in the field" kills weeds and insects. For that matter,
intensive grazing might be ecologically detrimental in the sense that
grazers apply a serious selection pressure on pastures, thereby altering
the species mix (while at the same time consuming-- and
trampling-- biomass that could otherwise be supporting insects, birds and
rodents rather than producing human food).
Some folks have seriously muddled thinking in the UK-- or else they are
deliberately trying to destroy what's left of British agriculture. - BOB
- Jay M. Holmes, Oct. 7, 2003, Food Safety Network;
Last week’s media event courtesy of Greenpeace - activists dangling from
cranes aboard the bulk carrier Glory Island unfurling banners reading
"Biohazard: GE Export" - featured the kind of flash that has become
standard among activist groups. The Glory Island was used by Greenpeace to
call attention to the Japan-bound ship's cargo of canola, which may have
included genetically-engineered varieties. The demonstration also called
attention to Gr eenpeace's campaign to ban the development and production
of biotechnology-derived crop varieties in Canada.
In conjunction with the event, Greenpeace spokesman Patrick Venditti
attempted to spread uncertainty regarding the introduction of
biotechnology-derived products into Canadian agriculture. Greenpeace's
claims are typical of those used by anti-biotechnology campaigners. They
are designed to provoke anxiety amongst the public in the hopes of
spurring the mass rejection of these new crops.
Contrary to Venditti’s assertions, the fact remains that Canada has a
rigourous regulatory system that is based on the most up-to-date science.
New biotechnology-derived products must be subjected to years of testing
before they can even be considered for approval by the government.
Following this testing, new products face intensive environmental safety
assessments and human health safety assessments by the Canadian Food
Inspection Agency and Health Canada. Canola varieties like those that are
likely aboard the Glory Island passed this regulatory scrutiny eight years
ago and have been deemed safe for the environment and for human
consumption. Since that time, millions of tonnes of the canola have been
produced, and people around the world have consumed the oil derived from
the crop without incident. Canada's trading partners have conducted their
own safety assessments of biotechnology-derived products like canola and
have concluded that their importation does not pose a danger.
Although Venditti claims that Canada is neglecting its obligations under
the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety by exporting the crop, this is not the
case. Under the Protocol, an exporting country has a duty to its fellow
signatories to provide information on the contents of shipments (not
individual consumer products) so that informed decisions can be made about
what to import. The cargo aboard the Glory Island is no different;
The Japanese importers know what they are buying. Whether the canola
should be labelled as a product of biotechnology on consumer pro ducts in
Japan is a matter for Japanese regulators, not Canadian activist groups,
to decide. According to a news release issued by the Canola Council of
Canada in reaction to the incident, there is no truth to the assertion
that exports of canola are disappearing: the market for Canadian canola
remains strong. While exports to the European Union have been lost since
the EU introduced a moratorium on the importation of some
biotechnology-derived products, producers have found new markets and
continue to export conve ntional and genetically engineered canola and
canola oil around the world.
Promoting environmental stewardship and protecting public health are noble
and widely shared goals. Politicians, government regulators, corporate and
institutional researchers, farmers and the food industry all have a vested
interest in pursuing such goals, a fact that is often lost on those
opposing the use of new technologies in food production. Negligence in the
areas of food and environmental safety is unacceptable, which is why new
techn ologies are heavily regulated and cautiously implemented.
People generally expect that a company will spin any news or information
that it releases so that it plays out in their best interests. What is
less widely recognized is that a similar process operates within groups
like Greenpeace. These groups have a vested interest in the outcome of the
biotechnology debate that is equal to that of the corporate interests they
oppose. For organisations that fund themselves almost exclusively through
public donations it is in their best interest to portray the introduction
of biotechnology-derived crops in the worst possible light in order to
motivate people to open their wallets, thus ensuring the ongoing survival
of the organizations themselves. This explains the wording of the banner
that was unfurled from the ship and it explains their spokesman's attempts
to frighten rather than inform.
Consumers concerned with the outcome of the biotechnology debate would
benefit from becoming good consumers of information. Any claim s, either
for or against the safety of biotechnology-derived products, should be
viewed with a healthy skepticism and should be supported with proof. In
addition, consumers must recognize the different motivations of the
participants in the biotechnology debate. Demanding proof of claims and
recognizing bias will keep them from being bogged down by the rhetoric
that is found on the extreme edges of the debate. Consumers would do well
to keep this in mind the next time they see someone dangling from a crane.
Jay M. Holmes is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph; email@example.com
- Dick Taverne, The Times (UK) Oct. 07, 2003; Sent by Vivian Moses
'You have to be green to swallow the organic food myth'
The Soil Association called yesterday for schools to provide organic
meals. If you think this sounds wholesome, you are conning yourself. Every
TV chef and lifestyle magazine tells us that organic food tastes better
and is safer than other food. Supermarkets promote it and the Government
subsidises farmers to grow it. Britain would, we are told, be healthier
and our countryside would once again prosper if only we all went organic.
In fact the craze for organic food is built on myth. It starts with a
scientific howler, has rules with neither rhyme nor reason, none of the
claims made for it have ever been substantiated and if it grows, it will
damage the nation's health.
To start with, the high priests of the organic movement tell us that
natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad. This is utter
nonsense. A molecule is a molecule, whether it is made by a synthetic
process or a natural one. Many synthetic drugs that kill bacteria are
highly beneficial; many natural chemicals are highly poisonous. Arsenic,
ricin, aflotoxin are all highly poisonous chemicals found in nature. Yet
the supposed superiority of "natural" over synthetic is the rock on which
the organic movement is built.
Next, the rules that organic farmers have to follow are a marvel of
inconsistency. They allow the use of some pesticides, for example spraying
with the toxic Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), but the Soil Association,
which makes the rules, bitterly opposes using part of the Bt gene in GM
crops, although this avoids the need to spray. In fact, Bt spraying kills
useful insects that are not pests and so is worse for the environment,
whereas a GM crop uses Bt to target specific insects. Again, the use of an
inorganic fungicide, copper sulphate, is allowed; more effective, safer
fungicides are banned.
But is not organic food safer because it contains fewer pesticide
residues? Scares about residues are another myth. As Sir John Krebs, the
head of the Food Standards Agency, wrote: "A single cup of coffee contains
natural carcinogens equal to at least a year's worth of carcinogenic
synthetic pesticides in the diet."
Does it taste better? Many people swear it does; but blind tests show no
one can tell the difference: the belief is sheer hype. As to biodiversity,
a study at Boarded Farms in Essex, comparing like with like, namely the
same farmer's organic and non-organic fields, showed that what matters is
management. Well-managed conventional farming was no worse for wildlife;
indeed a system of integrated farm management was better than organic
farming for biodiversity and used less energy and labour.
Every time organic farming claims are objectively examined, they are
rejected. When a complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Authority
about Soil Association leaflets claiming that organic food is tastier,
healthier and better for the environment, it was upheld and the leaflets
had to be withdrawn.
Some argue that it does not matter if such claims are false and organic
food costs more, since consumers are willing to pay and organic farmers
profit. But it does matter. Since organic fruit and vegetables are more
expensive, if organic products take a bigger market share, low-income
families - and children at less well-funded schools - will eat less fruit
and fewer vegetables. They will lose the protection against cancer that a
healthy diet provides and more of them will die younger. Cheap food may be
a luxury to the prosperous (and vocal) middle classes, but not to the
But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about organic farming is that the
Government wants it to expand. We the taxpayers have to pay.
Lord Taverne is chairman of Sense About Science
Fungal Enriched Organic Milk Anyone?
- Tom DeGregori
The advocates of "organic" products are on a roll. In recent articles they
have been touting the nutritional superiority of "organic" produce on the
basis of the fact that "organic" plants are not as well protected as food
plants produced in conventional agriculture. Consequently, "organic"
plants express a variety of toxins to protect themselves, among which are
salicytes and the phenolics. Of course, no mention is made of the other
toxic secondary metabolites, many of which have been found to be
carcinogenic. The latest such study claimed to be the first to find
evidence of the nutritional superiority of "organic" food. While we
concurred in their assessment of the fact that previous studies failed to
find any evidence, we found their evidence to be less than convincing.
Well, at least they were half-right which is certainly an improvement for
"organic" agriculture proponents.
Not only are they half-right again, it definitely looks like they may be
100% right on the issue that "organic" plants are less well protected.
Professor T Michael A Wilson's letter to the Times (London), using the UK
Food Standards Agency data, clearly shows the dangers of fungal
infestation of "organic" crops. Alex Avery using the same data has a
forthcoming article that demonstrates the far greater fumonisin
infestation of "organic" maize compared to conventionally grown maize. No
doubt about it, folks, "organic" maize is less well protected. And Bt
maize (corn) has tested out to be thirty to forty times lower compared to
conventionally grown maize which as Avery has shown us, is much lower than
for "organically" grown maize. Alex kindly shared his article with me
before publication which has allowed me to check and verify his data which
Permit me to quote a couple of paragraphs from my own writing of relevance
on this matter:
"GM corn 'has a distinct health benefit of discouraging the buildup of
mycotoxins in corn, potentially dangerous human and animal toxins produced
by fungi that cause plant disease' (APSnet 1999). Insects that damage
plants also make them more receptive to disease invasion and serve as
carriers for these disease pathogens. 'Insect larvae chew on stalks and
kernels, creating wounds where fungal spores can enter the plant. Once
established, these fungi often produce mycotoxins' (APSnet 1999). Some
mycotoxins such as fumonisins 'can be fatal to horses and pigs, and are
probable human carcinogens' (Munkvold and Hellmich 1999 and USDA 2000).
The fumonisins are associated with Fusarium ear rot, the most common ear
rot disease in the Corn Belt; it can be found in nearly every cornfield at
harvest (Munkvold and Hellmich 1999). The Bt corn, in resisting insect
damage from corn borers also protects against disease invasion with
fumonisin and mycotoxin levels 30 to 40 fold lower in some tests (IPMnet
2000). The associations between:
'these insects and corn diseases result from several types of host insect
pathogen interactions...European corn borer larvae carry spores of
Fusarium species from the plant surface to the surfaces of damaged kernels
or to the interior of stalks, where infections are initiated.' (Munkvold
and Hellmich 1999) Kernel rot caused by Aspergillus also is associated
with insect damage to ears. Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus produce
the most notorious mycotoxins in corn, the aflatoxins and `can be passed
into milk' when the infected grain is eaten by the cows, making 'the
economic impact of aflatoxins' even greater 'than that of other mycotoxins
in corn' (Munkvold and Hellmich 1999)."
One more quote from my own writing:
"Bruce Ames argues that not only is fungus infestation of plants dangerous
in and of itself but that such infestation causes plants to "produce very
much larger amounts of their natural toxins," many of which are likely
carcinogens (Ames 1990, 78, 80, see also Abelson 1994). According to Ames,
"we are ingesting in our diet at least 10,000 times more by weight of
natural pesticides than of man-made residues" (Ames, Magaw and Gold 1990,
78, see also Ames, Profet and Gold 1992a,b and Ames and Gold 1991)."
Given that both Fusarium ear rot and Aspergillus sp. are associated with
insect infestation, would not be reasonable also to have special testing
requirements for "organic" maize for aflatoxin infestation? And do we not
have right to demand special requirements for testing of "organic" milk
from cows fed with "organic" maize for aflatoxin infestation or does such
infestation somehow make it more nutritious? After all, we feed our
children with this milk. Calling all food safety advocates, the time for
action is now! Craig Sams, where are you now that we really need you?
P.S. - In communications to me concerning my posted piece on the
nutritional virtues of piss from those eating organic produce, only one
person picked-up on a point that I thought to be obvious. Namely, if the
nutrition is in your urine, it provided you with no benefit. If it was
because those tested had more than they needed than having the lesser
amount found in conventional produce was of no relevance. But it could
also be the result of lesser bioavailabilty in the "organic" plant or it
not being bioavailable in either type of plant production. For example, we
know that maize is not deficient in niacin (vitamin B3) but pellagra has
been a scourge of those whose diet is heavily based on maize since the
niacin is chemically bound in a manner that has rendered it inaccessible
unless properly treated. The only advantage than to nutritionally enhance
urine would be to those who drank it.
(excerpts from my book, Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, Iowa
State University Press, 2001, 2nd printing forthcoming later this year,
pp. 108-109, 74-75, paperback reprint, Bountiful Harvest: Technology,
Food Safety and the Environment, Cato Institute, 2002, pp. 108-109, 74-75.
see also, Organic Agriculture Debate (Iowa State Press: A Blackwell
Publishing Company which has just been published and The Environment, Our
Natural Resources and Modern Technology (Iowa State Press: A Blackwell
Publishing Company, 2002, paperback edition out before the end of the
REFERENCES Abelson, Philip H. 1994b. Adequate Supplies of Fruits and
Vegetables. Science 266(5189):1303, 25 November.
Ames, Bruce and Renae Magaw and Lois Swirsky Gold. 1990. Ranking Possible
Carcinogenic Hazards. Science 236, (4799):271-280, 17 April 1987,
reprinted in Readings in Risk edited by Theodore S. Glickman and Michael
Gough, pp. 76-92. Washington: Resources for the Future.
Ames, Bruce and Margie Profet and Lois Swirsky Gold. 1990a. Dietary
Pesticides (99.9% all natural). Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences USA 87:7777-7781.
Ames, Bruce and Margie Profet and Lois Swirsky Gold. 1990b. Nature's
Chemicals and Synthetic Chemicals: Comparative Toxicology. Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences USA 87:7782-7786.
Ames, Bruce N. and Lois Swirsky Gold. 1990. Too Many Rodent Carcinogens:
Mitogenesis Increases Mutagenesis. Science 249(4972):970-971, 31 August.
Ames, Bruce N. and Lois Swirsky Gold. 1991. Natural Plant Pesticides Pose
Greater Risks Than Synthetic Ones. Chemical Engineering News 69:48-49.
APSnet. 1999. American Phytopathological Society, APSnet Feature, Press
Release, 15 October.
IPMnet. 2000. Synopsis of Selected Pest Management Research. IPMnet News
(Consortium for International Crop Protection) (77), May.
Munkvold, Gary P. and Richard L. Hellmich. 1999. Genetically Modified,
Insect Resistant Corn: Implications for Disease Management. APSnet Feature
(American Phytopathological Society) 15 October. USFDA. 2000. Bt Corn Less
Insect Damage, Lower Mycotoxin Levels, Healthier Corn. Washington: U.S.
Food and Drug Administration, ARS News Service 26 April.
The GM Public Debate: Context and Communication Strategies
- Rosie Hails & Julian Kinderlerer, Nature Reviews Genetics 4, 819-825
Science communication is developing a new approach that promotes dialogue
between scientists and the public. A recent example is the debate on the
possible introduction of genetically modified crops into the United
Kingdom. As this exercise in public engagement draws to a close, we
consider the context in which this debate has taken place, and the
challenges of developing such interactions between science and society.
The first genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were created in the early
1970s using recombinant DNA technology, and the first GM plants were
produced in 1983. By the late 1980s, GM crops were on sale in China (virus
resistant tobacco and tomato), but they did not become widespread in the
United States until 1994. Early examples were the 'FlavrSavr' tomato,
insect-resistant corn that was introduced in 1995 and herbicide-tolerant
soybean that was introduced in 1996. Between 1996 and 2002, the global
area of cultivated GM crops increased 35-fold from 1.7-58.7 million
hectares. The first generation of GM crops are relatively unimaginative,
with 98% containing transgenes for herbicide tolerance or insect
resistance, but future crops are likely to be more diverse.
In contrast to some parts of the world, Europe has not embraced the
commercial growing of GM crops. In fact, the progress of GM crops through
the European Union regulatory system largely halted in 1998, since when
there has been a comprehensive review of all regulations that pertain to
the release of GMOs into the environment and the marketing of GM products.
This has been in response to public concerns over the potential
environmental consequences of introducing some GM cultivars, and the
desire for the consumer to be able to choose between GM and non-GM
products in the supermarket. It is now anticipated that Europe is in a
position to restart the regulatory process. In a recent report, the
European Union not only recognizes that "biotechnology has the potential
to deliver improved food quality and environmental benefits...", but also
states that there is a need for these benefits to be realized in and for
The United Kingdom government announced last year that before the
regulatory process is restarted, there should be a national dialogue on
genetic modification. This was carried out during the summer of 2003, 'at
arm's length' from the government, by an independent steering board. The
main period of public deliberation lasted six weeks during June and July
2003. Here, we discuss the national and international context in which
this debate arose, and take an initial look at what we can learn from this
first exercise in public deliberation on scientific issues in the United
GM technology is only one of many new technologies that will have
significant effects on society; nanotechnology and advances in biomedical
science are other examples that have the potential to affect everyday
lives. Ultimately, the success of such developments will depend on public
support, and on policy makers and scientists understanding the attitudes
of the society in which the science operates. This first United Kingdom
exercise in public consultation, its successes and its failures, will
therefore have much to teach us about how to effectively engage with the
public on scientific developments in the future.
What role is there for public debate?
Given that the regulatory system is science based, what role is there for
public debate? The recommendation for a national debate in the United
Kingdom came from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission
(AEBC), and arose from a report on the farm-scale evaluations (FSEs). This
series of experiments, the results of which will be published in the
autumn of 2003, investigated the potential effects of the management of
four GM herbicide-tolerant crops on farmland biodiversity compared with
the management of equivalent conventional crops. It was one of the largest
ecological experiments ever undertaken to investigate the potential
effects of changes in land use before the changes have taken place. The
results will contribute one piece to the 'multidisciplinary jigsaw' of
evidence on the potential consequences of the commercialization of GM
However, these experiments also became a focus for wider concerns about GM
technology in the United Kingdom, and highlighted the lack of a framework
within which there could be effective dialogue between the public and the
decision makers. The new European Union Directive on Deliberate Release
acknowledges the importance of respect for ethical principles and requires
consultation with the public on proposed releases. European Union
countries were required to implement the directive in October 2002, but
the European Commission had to refer 11 of its 15 member countries
(Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy,
Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Spain) to the European Court of Justice on
15 July 2003, for failing to adopt national legislation for its
Another important document -- the Cartagena Protocol -- is also about to
come into force. This is an international trade/environment treaty that is
subordinate to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). A total of 54
countries and the European Union have ratified this protocol, which comes
into force in September 2003. All members of the European Union are
required to ratify the treaty. Article 23(2) requires countries to consult
the public on decisions that concern living GMOs: "The Parties shall, in
accordance with their respective laws and regulations, consult the public
in the decision-making process regarding living modified organisms and
shall make the results of such decisions available to the public, while
respecting confidential information...".
Involving the public around the world. Involving the public in the debate
on the use of GMOs is not a new idea, either in Britain, where an
unstructured debate has proceeded for years, or in other countries. The
Scandinavian countries have used 'citizen jury' approaches, as has France
with its 'conference des citoyens'. In Switzerland, the Green Party, in
association with environmental groups, farmers and consumer associations,
called for a referendum on GM crops. Reports indicate that 115,000
citizens have signed the petition calling for a five-year moratorium
(which makes a poll mandatory). Although refusing to back the moratorium
during a debate in the Swiss Parliament in June 2003, the parliament
pledged to hold a public debate on the use of GM crops in Switzerland.
In May 2000, the New Zealand government set up a Royal Commission to
examine the strategic options that were open to New Zealand on the use of
genetic modification. The commission reported in July 2001 (Ref. 9). As
part of its investigation, it instituted a public-opinion survey, held 15
public meetings throughout the country and carried out formal hearings
that involved more than 300 witnesses and lasted more than 13 weeks. Those
who attended the public meetings were self-selected, which was recognized
as a potential problem. The inability of the commission to gauge the
degree to which the meetings reflected the views of the general public in
New Zealand led them to undertake a public-opinion survey that "showed a
greater balance of viewpoints than the public meetings and submissions
Objectives of the UK debate
The culture of science communication has undergone a metamorphosis in the
past decade. Until recently, science research councils referred to the
'public understanding of science' (with the unfortunate acronym of PUS),
which, by implication, follows the 'deficit model' of science
communication, in which the primary aim is to inform or to enhance the
scientific literacy of the public. Scientists often believe that they only
need to explain their research to the public for their ideas to be
accepted. It is abundantly clear that this is not the case. Those with
higher levels of education are as likely to reject the use of modern
biotechnology as those with little educational achievement.
The problem with the PUS approach is that science requires, as do many
disciplines, considerable technical investment to reach the level of
knowledge at which individuals are in the position to form their own
judgements. Individuals might, therefore, make a rational decision to
ignore much of the science and to trust other organizations and
stakeholder groups to judge the technical issues on their behalf. However,
under the deficit model, such individuals could find that their role in
the debate is severely restricted.
In 2000, the House of Lords produced a report with the title 'Science and
Society' , which argued for more effective public dialogue and engagement,
and emphasized the two-way nature of the process. This is one of several
reports and publications that mark the move from the deficit model to the
'dialogue and debate model'. This new way of thinking does not remove the
need for information to flow from scientists to the wider public, but
emphasizes the equal need for scientists, regulators and government to
understand public concerns and issues.
There must be mechanisms for interested members of the public to
interrogate specialists, ask questions and express their views. There must
also be methods by which these views can feed back into the
decision-making process. A recent review concluded that we lack a
framework by which people can access information about new science and
form their own judgements about its implications. The United Kingdom GM
public debate is one experimental attempt to put these hitherto largely
theoretical ideas into practice.
Elements of the debate
The United Kingdom government proposed that the national dialogue on GM
crops be organized into three linked strands: a review of the science
behind GM, led by the government's Chief Scientific Advisor; a study of
the economic implications of GM crop commercialization by the Prime
Minister's Strategy Unit; and a public debate guided by an independent
steering board. Naturally, there are interactions between these three
strands -- for example, the Science Review Panel has held open meetings
around the country at which specialist speakers review the present state
of knowledge. Members of the public have been invited to these meetings,
which provide an opportunity to question some of the scientists that are
involved in the development and risk assessment of this technology. There
are experimental elements to the organization of the public debate -- for
example, the focus on encouraging the public to 'frame the issues' for
discussion, rather than the various relatively entrenched interest groups
that have been involved in the debate from the outset.
There is also a commitment to reach sections of the public that have not
yet been involved in the debate, either through active engagement in local
or regional events, or simply through awareness of the programme and the
issues. The programme has drawn on the range of methods that have been
developed over the past few years to produce a series of events, most of
which were held in the summer of 2003 (Box 1).
The GM debate is not taking place in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of
other events. Below, we consider some of the influences that have provided
the context for the debate. A recent European study showed that public
concerns were not so much about the risks of this technology per se, but
more about trusting the institutions that are responsible for its
regulation. Therefore, we start by briefly reviewing the way in which GM
organisms are regulated in Europe, in contrast to the situation in the
United States. Then, we examine the 'art' of science communication by
considering the role of the media, examining whether the science is too
technical to communicate effectively and asking who is a trusted partner
in dialogues on scientific issues. Finally, we review what we can learn
from this exercise.
There have been several reports on how the public views science and
scientists, but far fewer on how scientists view the public and science
communication. One important example is research that was commissioned by
the Wellcome Trust and OST, which included a survey that investigated the
attitudes of scientists. Scientists were found to be keen to communicate
their science to the public, believing it to be their responsibility, with
more than one-half having participated in some form of
science-communication activity over the past year. However, they perceive
there to be certain barriers to improved dialogue. One of these is the
media, with 58% believing that media coverage of GM foods has confused the
understanding of the underlying scientific issues and 69% suspecting that
this has left the public more wary about scientific issues in general.
So, what role has the media had in setting the context of the GM debate?
The public rank newspapers low on their trust list, and scientists clearly
have concerns over the messages about GM in the media. Two different sorts
of science journalism should be recognized -- reporting and campaigning --
and the relationship between scientists and the media differs greatly
between these two cases. When reporting scientific issues, scientists are
seen as the principal source of information, whereas when they are
campaigning, scientists are seen as players in the story.
In the first half of 1999, GM food became the target of a campaign by a
few national newspapers, the character of which has been analysed by the
OST23. During the course of this campaign, public approval was thought to
have shifted from cautious approval (indeed, a labelled GM tomato paste
was selling well on the supermarket shelves) to sceptical disapproval23.
This does not, however, mean that the newspaper campaign necessarily
caused this change. Successful campaigns require some resonance with
public opinion, or they risk damaging their reputation. Their role as
opinion formers might not be as direct as is sometimes supposed. It might
be the lack of a framework in which to discuss the social and ethical
implications of this science that created the context for the newspaper
campaign, although some newspaper editors undoubtedly exploited this.
There are both positive and negative aspects to its legacy. The
confrontational and inaccurate reporting of science during the campaigning
period might well have contributed to the poor image of the media among
some scientists. It certainly contributed to the poor image of GM among
the public and created an increased awareness of the need for better
mechanisms for public dialogue. One crucial aspect of this dialogue should
be clear and accurate communication of the scientific issues.
Communicating the science of GM
Any dialogue requires the exchange of information, and in the case of
science, this information is often highly technical in nature. To what
extent should science communication aim to enhance the scientific literacy
of members of the public? A lack of public knowledge, education or
interest in science is seen by some scientists as a barrier to dialogue.
However, when the Wellcome Trust used focus groups to investigate
attitudes to cloning2, it concluded that given sufficient time and
high-quality support materials, non-specialist groups could tackle
scientifically complex issues without needing in-depth knowledge of the
details to grasp the ethical and social implications. So, although the
enhancement of scientific literacy might be one by-product of a dialogue,
an important focus should be the quality and accessibility of the material
that is provided to stimulate the discussion in the first place.
Many scientists probably feel that the stimulus material should present
the public with as clear a picture of the facts as possible. However, one
feature that has characterized the GM debate throughout its history has
been the apparent disagreement between scientists. The proponents and
opponents seem to have definitive scientific evidence to support their
case and refute that of the opposition. A recent House of Commons report
stated that "no consensus is emerging from the scientific research
undertaken into the environmental impact and safety of GM food and
There are at least two mechanisms in place that should provide guidance in
situations of scientific disagreement. One is the peer-review process,
through which scientific research is criticized by anonymous experts in
the same field. All professional scientists know that if they fail to
publish their work in peer-reviewed journals then it has not passed that
test of independent and rigorous scrutiny. Looking at the peer-reviewed
literature, there is a much greater degree of consensus on many of the key
GM issues (for example several national regulatory agencies have concluded
from the literature that the GM foods that are available at present are as
safe to eat as their conventional counterparts). The second mechanism is
the voice of scientific institutions, such as the Royal Society. Such
societies have produced several reports on GM food safety and the
potential effects of GM crops on the environment. The Nuffield Council on
Bioethics has also produced several reports on these issues, which attempt
to identify the ethical problems that might arise when GM products are
used. These reports should be given the authority that reflects the
evidence behind them.
In conclusion, the science behind GM is highly technical, but it is not
necessary for members of the public to have in-depth knowledge of the
science to form an opinion on the social and ethical implications.
High-quality stimulus material is essential for informed debate, and this
should draw on state-of-the-art scientific knowledge that is presented in
an accessible form. There is scientific consensus about many of the key
issues, yet this is often obscured when the debate becomes polarized. The
science-review strand of the public dialogue has contributed to this
process by summarizing the points of scientific consensus and highlighting
the unanswered questions34. In moving from the deficit model to dialogue
and debate, more emphasis has, rightly, been placed on the flow of
information from the public to the scientists. Importantly, the quality of
the information that flows from the scientists to the public should not be
What did the public dialogue aim to achieve and how can its success be
measured? Ultimately, GM crops will only be banned if they are found to be
detrimental to human health or the environment, but they will only be a
success if there is a market for their products.
Without direct input from the debate into the decision-making process, it
might not be clear how its outputs will be measured. One of the aims of
the public dialogue was to reach beyond the usual participants of this
debate to the wider public. How will the achievement of this objective be
assessed? Unfortunately, the problems that were identified by the New
Zealand Royal Commission on the self-selection of participants at public
meetings were not addressed in the design of the debate in Britain.
However, as mentioned earlier, focus groups were formed in the autumn of
2002 to frame the questions for debate, which allowed the public to set
the agenda from the outset, and the members of these focus groups were
selected on the basis of not having been involved in GM issues previously.
The same focus groups will be reconvened at the close of the programme, so
that their views on the issues that they initially raised can be
determined (Box 1). These outputs might be compared with those that
emanate from the numerous local and regional meetings across the country
-- acting as a control against the participants being self-selected from
any one particular interest group. This should provide an insight into
public opinion after the dialogue, an indication of the effectiveness of
the programme as a whole, and show the extent to which it suffered from
the same self-selection problems as were seen in New Zealand.
There have been other criticisms of the process -- in particular, the
running of the three strands (public dialogue, economic study and science
review) in parallel and the closing of the debate before the results of
the FSEs are published in the autumn of 2003. This is regrettable, as the
results of the FSEs will be of value and public interest. Similarly, the
economic and science strands could have contributed to the debate process
and enhanced the stimulus material. Both of these strands reported in July
2003, when the public debate was already drawing to a close. The economic
report concluded that public attitudes would be of central importance in
determining the economic effects of GM crop commercialization, and that in
the present climate the market for GM products was weak35; it also
concluded that there would be important benefits from future GM crop
developments, but the former conclusion was given much more press
The science report examined a wide range of issues and highlighted the
gaps in our knowledge (one being that the environmental effects are likely
to depend on how the farmers apply the technology in the field -- pointing
again to the need to discuss the FSE results)34.
Given the complexity of environmental risk assessment, the case-by-case
approach adopted by our regulatory system continues to be the best way
forward. The economic and science strands have collated our present
state-of-the-art knowledge, but they could have had a greater role in the
public dialogue itself. In future exercises of this nature, the task of
providing up-to-date, accurate and accessible information as stimulus
material should be given the highest priority.
The primary aim of the GM debate was to provide an innovative and
effective programme of public deliberation. This involves information
exchange in two directions: those members of the public who participate
should learn more about the issues that surround GM crops; at the same
time, scientists, policy makers and the government should reach a better
understanding of public opinion and concerns. Such improved understanding
might shape the direction of future research and the development of future
markets. Much of the value of the exercise is therefore in the process
Rosie Hails is at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Mansfield Road,
Oxford OX1 35R, UK.; Julian Kinderlerer is at the Sheffield Institute of
Biotechnological Law & Ethics, University of Sheffield, Sheffield SL10
1FL, United Kingdom.
for full paper including graphs and references.