UK public strongly rejects GM foods - public debate results (24/9/2003)

"The more people engage in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns. The Narrow-But-Deep 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... In particular, the more they choose to discover about GM the more convinced they are that no one knows enough about the long-term effects of GM on human health." (item 2)

Even New Scientist's most pro-GM journo can't spin this one much - despite the delightful suggestion that the Women's Institute hi-jacked the public meetings!! (item 1)

1.UK public strongly rejects GM foods
2.from the report of the Steering Board of the public debate on GM
UK public strongly rejects GM foods
Andy Coghlan
NewScientist.com news service

The UK public resoundingly rejected the case for growing and eating genetically modified food on Wednesday.

The emphatic snub comes in a report announcing results of the UK government's "GM Nation" public debate on the future for GM foods.  It sums up feedback from 1200 letters and more than 600 public meetings attended by at least 8000 British people since June 2003.

The news comes at a time when British and other European governments are coming under increasing international pressure - particularly from the US - to lift a five-year moratorium on the growing and approval of GM crops.

The document, along with major scientific and economic evaluations of GM crops published earlier in summer 2003 and forthcoming results of field trials, will help inform the UK government's decision on whether to end moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops later in 2003

Hijacked meetings

Key messages from the report included:

¥ British people are generally uneasy aboutGM
¥ Finding out more, simply deepened people's concerns
¥ Few people support early commercialization, with more than half attending the debates saying they never wanted GM crops grown in the UK
¥ Widespread mistrust of government and multinational companies
¥ People want to know more, and crave a "corpus of agreed 'facts' accepted by all organisations and interests"
¥ Developing countries have special interests, but fairer trade rules would do more to eliminate hunger than GM crops

The only solace in the report for supporters of GM crops was some evidence that opponents "hijacked" public meetings and sent most of the letters - so skewing the outcome. Observers at meetings counted five opponents for every supporter or neutral person who attended.

The report acknowledges this phenomenon. Websites run by groups opposed to GM crops, such as the National Federation of Women's Institutes, had urged members to attend meetings in force, for example. And the report identifies middle-aged mothers as displaying the most "implacable" opposition.

Hardened Views

But views were trenchant even among 77 "impartial" participants chosen for a special "survey-within-a-survey". This survey aimed to tease out differences between committed, self-selecting individuals who attend meetings and the "silent majority", says the report.

Many "impartials" who started out undecided hardened their views against GM foods after they had had two weeks to "immerse themselves" in the subject - although their sources were not always impartial.

"Most people relied on secondary reports of research, often from interested parties, without checking back to see if the research had been reported accurately," says the report.
2.from the report of the Steering Board of the public debate on GM

This is the report of the Steering Board of the public debate on GM (genetic modification) and GM crops. Its structure is described briefly below, but first we present its seven key messages.

Key Messages
It was no part of our intentions in this report to say whether the public were right or wrong about any GM issue, even on matters of fact. With that in mind, we believe that the debate carries seven key messages about public attitudes.

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 (is GM food safe to eat? What will GM crops do the environment?) but 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. These people expressed strongly the belief that GM technology and GM food carried potential risks and a majority rejected any suggested benefits from GM, except to the companies which promoted it. Such attitudes varied in intensity but they did represent the majority in all sections of the active participants in the debate.
Our analysis of the Narrow-But-Deep element suggests that among this sample of the general population people are less emphatic and less definite in their first response to GM issues. When asked to review their responses to the questions, people 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. People said that they felt uninformed about GM and in the Narrow-But-Deep discussion groups they often felt unable to express an opinion on particular GM issues. Partly for this reason, they expressed little confidence in their own power to influence decisions about GM.

2)The more people engage in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns
The Narrow-But-Deep 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. In particular, the more they choose to discover about GM the more convinced they are that no one knows enough about the long-term effects of GM on human health.

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 United Kingdom under any circumstances. Almost all the remainder want at least one new condition to be satisfied before this happens. They seek varying periods of delay so that new information, tests or research can identify and eliminate, or at least reduce to an acceptable level, the potential risks to the environment and human health.

The findings of the public debate
The Narrow-But-Deep sample suggests that the general population does not share the unconditional opposition to GM of many active debate participants. 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 multi-national companies
Alongside arguments over the potential risks and benefits of GM itself, both the open debate and the Narrow-But-Deep 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 multi-national companies. Such suspicion is commonly expressed as a lack of trust. Here, mistrust of government applies both to government in general and in particular and expresses itself through several avenues. One is the suspicion that the government has already taken a decision about GM: the debate was only a camouflage and its results would be ignored. In this way, GM links to a general mistrust of the motives and behaviour of modern governments, a general concern that they have secret agendas, and ignore the public's views.

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 multi-national companies which 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. Even when people acknowledge potential benefits of GM technology, they are doubtful that GM companies will actually deliver them. People are suspicious about any information or science which emanates from GM companies, or which is funded by them. When given the opportunity to engage in GM issues, people do not rely exclusively on official sources or everyday media. They choose sources which they trust and which 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 Narrow-But-Deep sample, people expressed a very strong wish - almost a longing - 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. This was acknowledged as a subject of special interest, to be judged on distinct arguments and values. 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 Narrow-But-Deep 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. The debate generated a great deal of voluntary activity, which deepened and multiplied as it got under way. The number of local meetings increased with each week of the debate, involving thousands of people across the country by the end of the process and an estimated total of over 600 meetings. People were inspired not only to organise meetings and debates of their own but to take other personal steps to get engaged in GM issues - first-hand research, getting in touch with their council or their MP, writing a letter or e-mail. In spite of their suspicions of government, people expressed a real hope that their efforts in the debate would influence future policy.

Structure of the report
1) This is a report on an unprecedented event - a special public debate before a potentially farreaching change in public policy. It was a chance for the British people to come forward and say what they felt about a new technology - genetic modification (GM) - and the commercial growing of GM crops in this country. Paragraph 1

2) We describe the origins of the debate (paragraphs 3 - 9), as one of three strands, together with an economic and a science review, of a wider public debate on GM issues. We set out our aims and principles (paragraphs 10 - 11). It shows how we applied them, particularly the principle that the public should frame the issues (paragraphs 14 - 18). It outlines the innovative process and events which were devised for the debate (paragraphs 19 -21) and describes how and why, in parallel with these events, we decided to commission research based on discussion groups involving members of the public - the Narrow-But-Deep element (paragraph 22).

3) We briefly narrate the course of GM Nation? The public debate in June and July 2003, with an estimated total of over 600 regional, county and local meetings (paragraphs 24 -28).
The findings of the public debate

4) We describe the sources of our evidence (paragraphs 30 - 37), distinguishing evidence from "self-selecting" participants in the debate (people who attended meetings, sent letters and e-mails and completed feedback forms) from the Narrow-But-Deep element of discussion groups involving the general public.

5) Under "The public agenda" (paragraphs 38 - 77) we describe issues, concerns and arguments which were common to all parts of the debate. We then examine separately the evidence we received from meetings and events (paragraphs 78 - 94), letters and e-mails (paragraphs 95 - 103), feedback forms (paragraphs 104 - 140), and the Narrow-But-Deep element (paragraphs 141 - 193). We then compare and contrast responses received in the open debate and in the Narrow-But-Deep element (paragraphs 194 - 210).

6) We briefly report the outcome of a number of other consultations on GM issues paragraphs (211 - 230).

7) We make a brief statement about the relationship between our report and those of the economic and scientific strands.

8) We list the seven key messages we have identified from our report.

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