Growing concern: Engaging the public with issues involving GM

Much Dewchurch field MMB 02In the late 1990s, genetically modified crops were subject of a public debate which is often described as “public engagement gone horribly wrong”. Are we doing any better now in engaging the public with GM issues? This session (part of the Science Communication Conference 2011), chaired by Fiona Fox from the Science Media Centre, tried to answer this question with a line-up of three excellent speakers.

Jack Stilgoe (@Jackstilgoe), Senior Policy Adviser at the Royal Society, opened his talk with lessons learned from the history of public dialogue on GM crops. In contrast to representation in the media, most people were in fact not completely pro-GM or anti-GM. Instead they adapted a more careful attitude taking into account the complexity of the topic: “Yes, but…” – “No, but…”.

It became very clear in this session that people’s main concerns are the existence and effectiveness of agricultural and political governance and regulatory systems to deal with GM technology. Are appropriate systems in place to assess the potential risks of GM crops to consumers and the environment? What is the impact on agriculture in developing countries? If monopolistic companies are able to not only alter the genome of important crops but also patent these changes, do they gain too much control over the food chain and the food market?

Stilgoe pointed out that before embarking on any public engagement we first need to ask ourselves: “Which issue are we trying to engage with?” Once we recognise that the public debate about GM is in fact not a scientific but a political debate, we can identify a whole range of issues which all need to be addressed in their own way.

The next speaker was Professor David Baulcombe from the Department of Plant Sciences in Cambridge, who talked about the science of GM and highlighted the major challenges we will be facing over the next thirty years. How are we going to provide sustainable food supplies for an increasing population in a changing climate and with limited resources? Plants have not evolved to produce big fruits but to survive and reproduce, and so carry a massive unrealised potential in their genome. By transferring specific genes between plants, we can create new varieties in a targeted way and yet preserve their original characteristics.

Cochliobolus miyabeanus

Prof Baulcombe said: “If we are prepared to think about GM, we can take on grand challenges like improving photosynthesis”. Photosynthesis, the process in which plants convert sunlight to energy, is actually a very inefficient process and scientists know its weak spots. New engineered varieties could be better equipped to deal with droughts and diseases. Perennial crops would have huge benefits, such as eliminating the need for plants to rebuild a whole root system every year. He finished his talk by posing important key questions we need ask ourselves: Will it be possible to feed the world with or without GM and can we do it in a sustainable way?

The last speaker was Andrew Wadge (@FSAscientist), Chief Scientific Adviser at the Food Standards Agency, who brought GM into context with other technological advances related to food safety and production. Pasteurised milk for example was at first rejected by many people, although the scientific evidence for its health benefits was sound. Instead, the public’s concerns turned out to be based on morals, ethics and values. There is a clear discrepancy and it raises the question if evidence-based policies work for a values-based public.

A literature review analysing public attitudes on animal cloning, GM foods and nanotechnologies in March 2009 found that typical responses were: Is it safe? What is in it for me? What is in for “them”? Will it harm the environment? Is it natural? Key issues in the acceptance of new technologies are their perceived risks and benefits, or as Wadge put it: “If I am not benefiting from it, why should I expose myself to any risk, even if it is very small?” A very good example is mobile phone technology. Mobile phones are now an integral part of our society because they are so useful, despite reoccurring fears about cancer risks. Similarly, most people nowadays would not hesitate to use a microwave oven for food preparation. The perception of the benefits of mobile phones and microwaves is overriding the perception of risks associated with exposing yourself or your food to such radiation.

Experts agree that there is no substantiated evidence for GM food being harmful to health, or more harmful than its non-GM counterparts. So why does it remain such a controversial topic? A limited understanding of complex science means that the public will make judgements based on their values. People respond emotionally to new technology, even if scientific evidence proves it to be safe. Thus they might intuitively expect more and different safety studies than official risk assessors would deem necessary, such as clinical trials and long-term feeding studies. Following the thoughts of Stilgoe, Wadge suggested that it might be time to approach the GM debate differently: “All this time we had science-based assessments, but no value-based assessment of the issues”.

Prof Baulcombe added that scientists might often not come across credibly because they are not prepared to be perceived as having values. However, scientists do have views and values about the context in which a technology should be applied, such as making it publicly available in an open source technology framework, supporting small farms and enriching diversity in agriculture. In the GM debate, scientists were often put on the same side as large companies, although in reality they had very little in common. In his words, “science can speak with many voices”. Scientists can legitimately argue for or against different solutions, which leads to a more productive discussion. He also urged scientists to make a case for the benefits and effectiveness of GM – not angrily, but forcefully, because “when you are angry, you can’t think straight”.

Further reading:

Reaping the benefits”

      , The Royal Society – Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture, 2009.

“Public attitudes to emerging food technologies”

    , Food Standards Agency, 2009.

On the 25th and 26th May the annual Science Communication Conference, organised by the British Science Association, took place in London. I was able to attend after receiving a bursary from the BSA and returned very inspired and motivated.


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