GM debate will never be resolved unless the public is consulted properly

The debate can get pretty shouty. Rosalee Yagihara, CC BY-NC

The UK Council for Science and Technology recently called on prime minister David Cameron to reassess EU rules on GM crops. Two days later the Observer published an editorial bluntly declaring: “There’s no choice; we must grow GM crops now”. There is a high risk that a new round of the shouting match that mired the debate 15 years ago will begin again, with little real progress.

But research since the first failure of the debate on GM crops in the EU suggests there is a better way. Our GM-Futuros project has recently explored the GM debates in depth at national and local levels in India, Mexico and Brazil – highlighting some stark lessons for the EU and UK. Quality engagement with the public is key.

Both of the recent UK publications call for a positive move towards GM agricultural technology. Ostensibly this is driven by forecasts of global population increases and a shortfall in food supply from current agricultural land by 2050. The Council for Science and Technology letter also appeals to the current loss of economic opportunity in the UK from present over-restrictive EU regulations. The Observer piece is dismissive of objections: “Thirty years ago, it could be argued that we should proceed cautiously because of potential health dangers. That argument is no longer acceptable.”

Troubled technologies

The dangers of using language like this (and that used by the government itself recently) has become clearer thanks to research into the debate around “troubled technologies” – technologies that touch sensitive public nerves. These are legion: nanotechnologies, nuclear power, GMOs, geoengineering and, more recently, fracking.

Some technology stirs up emotional opposition more than others, and this happens differently across cultures. This suggests that more is going on than an on-the-surface discussion of technological risk, potential benefits and possible harms.

The GM-Futuros project builds on a previous study, which found public concerns over certain new technologies reflected deeply-lying, and often hidden, beliefs.

They were full of powerful arguments using narratives such as “the rich get richer”, “we are kept in the dark”, “Pandora’s box”, “messing with nature” and “be careful what you wish for”. If the sources of this scepticism is not recognised and dealt with sensitively, proponents and opponents of policy simply talk past each other.

Public interests

In Mexico, there has been a slow and silent implementation of GM crops but the GM controversy truly exploded with the case of maize, which holds an iconic (almost sacred) national status. It unites urban consumers and rural populations alike: the public resistance to GM maize is such that a recent moratorium has been mandated by a judge.

In Brazil, the growing numbers of urban middle class consumers are largely unaware that they are eating GM foods. When made aware, they feel they have been betrayed and kept in the dark by their government. In India, however, the debate centres around Indian GM science. Part of the national scientific community lobbies for the development of Indian GM technology, while another part argues that Indian science cannot guarantee a reliable assessment of risks and impacts at present.

The three countries show huge differences in how social responsibility is appreciated by scientists. Our experience has been that “the public interest”, while a common broadcast message, has not been a key driver of protest in practice.

The reality is that GM has benefited some (typically large producers) at the expense of others (small producers and other alternative methods of organising agriculture such as agro-ecology). The use of GM crops in India, Brazil and Mexico has also pointed to degrees of “lock-in” (where farmers are left with no alternatives) and few sustainability benefits.

Engagement done properly

The quality of public engagement is a critical element in implementing GM. Brazilian, Mexican and Indian citizens (the consumers) have been more or less wholly absent from the debate, as have many others, including the vital voices of local farmers. When eventually informed they are often angry.

This means engaging with the UK public is necessary but likely to prove insufficient unless this is done properly. Real consideration must be given to what constitutes the public good, the conditions under which it is likely to be realised in practice, and the plausibility of these conditions being implemented under current arrangements.

Simply calling for the relaxation of regulations on GMOs therefore misses the point to a large extent. The key issue is to move the debate away from an analysis of harms (as assessed exclusively by scientists and regulators) towards a more inclusive discussion of the issues that actually constitute the public interest. What kind of agriculture do we want as a nation? How should different citizens be involved in the process? How contingent will public trust be on how the issue is framed and deliberated?

Building trust

An essential starting point is the realisation that government is not trusted on this issue; indeed, the way they’ve framed the debate has been largely unhelpful, in that GM so far has embraced a model of agriculture that people are uneasy with (for good reason) and about which they feel they have not been consulted.

We need to move forward, making scientific decisions more democratic. A new framework for responsible innovation details how this can be done in practice, through anticipating impacts, reflecting on motivations, engaging with the public and then using these processes to influence the direction of the research process itself.

To this end, we are holding a workshop at the Royal Society on 13th June to discuss GM in the UK and EU and to draw research findings together into policy recommendations. We are optimistic, in spite of the hard lessons, that a way forward in framing policy is possible, but only if those lessons are learnt well.