GM debate results due/Public still have no appetite for GM food/Conduct of UK's GM public Debate National Consumer Council (24/9/2003)

1.GM debate results due
2. Public still have no appetite for GM food – Five Year Freeze
 3.Conduct of the GM public Debate – Memo from the National Consumer Council
1.GM debate results due
8.13AM BST, 24 Sep 2003

The results of the Government's national debate on genetically modified food are due to be published.  They are expected to confirm widespread unease about giving the go-ahead to GM crops.

And they are being released as the prepares Government to make some major decisions over the future of GM crops.

The "GM Nation" Debate took place during the summer in towns, cities, village and town halls round the country.  People's views have been distilled and an analysis drawn up to give a more accurate picture of the strength of feeling about the technology.

Regional events from Inverness and the Scottish Islands to Cornwall and the Isle of Wight ran from June 3 to July 18 and were made up of three elements, a science review, economic assessment and the debate itself.

Friends of the Earth said the report was expected to confirm widespread scepticism towards GM crops which will create a dilemma for the Government.  The environmental group said a number of key ministers are known to favour GM commercialisation and a decision on whether or not to give commercial GM crops the go-ahead is due later this year.

The results of a three-year farm scale evaluation of GM crops are due next month.
2. Public still have no appetite for GM food
Government must act on results of GM Nation? The Public Debate

The results of GM Nation? the public debate, released to-day, show that members of the public remain unconvinced of any benefits to be had for UK consumers and farmers from GM food, and do not want to see the commercial growing of GM crops in the UK at this time.

The Five Year Freeze, which sat on the Steering Board overseeing the debate process, welcomed to-day's confirmation from members of the public that the moratorium on commercialising GM crops must continue.

'Government has asked the public for their views on GM, and they must now act on these results.   For years we have been calling for a policy which reflects legitimate public concerns', Freeze Director, Clare Devereux, said to-day. 'One of the key messages from the public is how little Government or industry is trusted on this issue - there is now a duty to adopt a more precautionary approach to GM crops and food. The public's message is that profit must not be put before human and environmental safety.

The Freeze has consistently called for greater public involvement in GM decision making and GM Nation has now demonstrated the public's willingness to get involved in this complex issue - it would be a great mistake if the Government now ignored this'.

The GM Nation results show that the public mood is one of unease and mistrust about GM food and crops. Like the Five Year Freeze, they would like to see more research undertaken and firm regulation in place before commercial growing of GM crops in the UK, and that the right to choose is maintained.   Currently the public view is that the risks outweigh any potential benefits that may exist.

"Government must move forward on developing a strong co-existence and liability regime and start to invest in research to answer the questions which are important to the public," said Clare Devereux.

Contact:  Clare Devereux 07803 002825, 0207 837 0642 or Carrie Stebbings 0207 837 0642.


Notes to Editors
1. The results of GM Nation? the public debate are due to be announced at a press conference today, Wednesday 24th September, 10.00am at Institute of Civil Engineers, 1 Great George Street, SW1.  The report is available at www.gmnation.org
2. Further information on the Five Year Freeze and a list of members is available at www.fiveyearfreeze.org

The Genetic Engineering Alliance
94 White Lion Street
N1 9PF
Tel: 020 7837 0642/01273 822700
Fax: 020 7837 1141
[email protected]
3.Conduct of the GM public Debate

Memorandum from the National Consumer Council
12 September 2003
House of Commons
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee

The National Consumer Council (NCC) is an independent consumer expert, championing the consumer interest to bring about change for the benefit of all consumers.  We do this by working with people and organisations that can make change happen - governments, regulators, business and people and organisations who speak on behalf of consumers.

We are independent of government and all other interests.  We conduct rigorous research and policy analysis and draw on the experiences of consumers and other consumer organisations.  We have linked organisations in England Scotland and Wales, and a close relationship with colleagues in Northern Ireland.  And we work with consumer organisations in Europe and worldwide to influence European and global governments and institutions.

We are a non-departmental body, limited by guarantee, and funded mostly by the Department of Trade and Industry.

This memorandum responds to a request from the Clerk of the Committee for a written submission in connection with the Committee's Inquiry into the conduct of the GM public debate.

1. The NCC is working on developing and promoting models of risk governance that better reflect the consumer interest and perspectives. Issues such as BSE, MMR vaccination, GM crops and mobile phone safety are just some of the issues that raise questions about how consumers respond to risk and uncertainty.   Consumers are sometimes said by policy-makers and experts to behave irrationally in the face of risk, yet our understanding of how consumers actually approach risk and uncertainty is limited.   This must change if the government is to assess, manage and communicate risk more effectively.

2. The NCC has also undertaken a considerable amount of work on consumer involvement.    In the NCC report involving consumers: everyone benefits, a number of key ingredients are identified for successful public consultation.   Complete clarity about the objective for involving consumers is essential.  The aim should be to make consumer involvement second nature.  It should be built into policy-making processes as early as possible, not added on at the end.   Different purposes are better served by different methodologies.  For consumer involvement to be meaningful, it needs to be carried out for positive reasons based on a real need.   It should encourage and enable consumers to be effectively involved and have a real influence.

3. The NCC supported the GM Public Debate.  We believe it is very important that the public have a say in the future of GM crops.  We also very much support the work of the AEBC in developing proposals for the public debate and for the work of the independent steering board chaired by Prof Malcolm Grant set up to oversee the process.

Consulting consumers/public is an important point of principle in our model of 'good' risk governance, particularly where there are issues of scientific uncertainty and/or controversy (both in this case).  Other countries have a stronger tradition of citizen or consumer participation in decision-making but in the UK the Public Debate was unprecedented and so we believe it is important to evaluate the process (as well as the outcome) and to learn the lessons from it.  This process is important not just for the GM issue but for the future of public consultation across government as a whole.

Purpose of the Debate

4. The NCC believes that government failed to make sufficiently clear the purpose of the debate.  Was it to simply to seek the views of the British public? Or was it to go further and to allow the public to feel that they could participate in debate on the issue and actually make their voices heard?

5. Secondly, the government failed to make clear what influence the outcomes of the Public Debate would have on its decision-making process.  Indeed it sought to distance the two and this still remains unclear. The NCC and other research, shows that honesty about the limits for and potential for consumer/public influence are an essential element in any successful public engagement strategy.  Without such clarity and understanding the public are more likely to display cynicism towards the process.  If people believe the exercise to be tokenistic they will be deterred from taking part.

6. NCC research  shows that low-income consumers most strongly lack trust in the way that government and officialdom handle matters of risk and uncertainty such as GM, and are most likely to consider public consultation a token gesture and therefore pointless. Consequently, it is not surprising that levels of apathy among these consumers are high. Overcoming such apathy was always going to be a challenge for the public debate, particularly given the widespread public distrust of government decision-making on GM.

NCC briefings  show that only one in six people consider that the government listens to what ordinary people think.  Only 31% say they trust the government to tell the truth on GM.  Given this background, it was extremely unfortunate that greater clarity of the relationship between the public debate and government policy making was not forthcoming.   This, again, will have deterred some people from participating in the debate, since they did not believe that the government had a genuinely open mind on the issue.


7. Any kind of public engagement, particularly on the scale envisaged by GM Nation, costs money and sufficient resources need to be allocated. A lot of valuable time was wasted initially trying to get more money allocated by DEFRA, which delayed the whole process.

8. Equally important to successful public involvement is allowing sufficient time for engagement.  GM Nation was launched to the public on May 6, the deadline for submissions was June 18, a period of just six weeks.  This time period was woefully, and unnecessarily, inadequate to ensure the kind of local level engagement, really reaching 'ordinary' citizens, that was originally intended.  By comparison, government good practice guidelines for public consultations is three months.  A public debate on such a scale required at least this amount of time, if not more. 

The NCC itself received complaints from local organisations who considered they did not have time to arrange local meetings or who heard about the debate process too late.  Others reported failures or delays in getting information via the website address.  Even local authorities struggled to put together public meetings in this time period.

NCC research also shows that when seeking to reach disadvantaged groups it is important to take the debate to such communities, and to involve local, trusted groups.  Again this takes time and support.

9. The truncated timescale for the GM Nation debate also meant that it was not possible for the results of the science and economic reviews to be used as valuable and up-to-date sources of information to inform the public debate.  The NCC believes this was a major shortcoming particularly given the controversy that there was over the information that was provided (in particular that provided by the Food Standards Agency).

Role of the Food Standards Agency

10. The NCC would have liked to have seen greater co-ordination and co-operation from the Food Standards Agency with the Public Debate.  The NCC, along with Consumers Association and Sustain wrote a joint letter to the FSA on 12 March 2003, expressing serious concern about the FSA's approach to GM, and the way it positioned itself in the debate.


11. Evaluation is crucial.  It was a failing that this was not built into the budget.  The 64,000 dollar question is, will it make a difference and has it impacted on the public's perceptions of the issue.  But this isn't just about GM, it is also about the way in which government handles matters of risk and uncertainty.  It was an important step forwards in acknowledging the importance of giving the public a say on controversial issues, but valuable lessons need to be learned from the process.

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