BioWorld International Correspondent
LONDON - Genetically modified crops received the thumbs-down from the British public following a national debate that the government hoped would swing opinion in favor of the technology.
After holding more than 600 public meetings across the country in July this year, the organizers of the debate, called GM Nation? (the question mark depicts the "debate" aspect of the organization), concluded that there is widespread concern not only about the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops, but also a range of related social and political issues.
"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," concluded the report from GM Nation?, which was published last week. Although that attitude varied in intensity, it represented the majority viewpoint of those who participated in the debate.
The government had believed that if people were better informed about GM crops, they would support adoption of the technology but, in fact, the opposite has happened.
"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," the report said.
Although in general people who become informed about GM crops are more willing to accept some potential benefits, especially medical benefits and other advantages for developing countries, they become more doubtful about certain proposed benefits and express greater unease about the risks associated with GM.
"In particular, the more they chose to discover about GM, the more convinced they are that no one knows enough about the long-term effects of GM on human health," said the report. As a result, there is little support for the commercialization of GM crops, with just under half of participants saying that GM crops should never be planted in the UK, while most others said GM crop production should be delayed while research into potential risks is carried out.
The UK government will find it hard to uphold its promise to listen to public opinion as the EU moves to lift the five-year-long moratorium on the commercialization of GM crops in Europe.
To complicate matters further, the debate also uncovered a widespread mistrust of the government's approach to GM technology that will make it even more difficult to reach an acceptable compromise. There exists "a strong and wide degree of suspicion about the motives, intentions and behavior of those taking decisions about GM - especially government and multinational companies," the report stated.
The suspicion is that the government has already made a decision about GM; the debate was only a camouflage and its results will be ignored. Furthermore, the debate highlighted a weakening of faith in the ability, or even the will, of governments to defend the interests of the general public.
The debate also reflected unease over the perceived power of the multinational companies that promote GM technology. People believe the companies have the power to make their interests prevail over the wider public interest. And people are doubtful that GM companies will be able to deliver on the potential benefits of GM technology, even when the public acknowledges that that potential exists.
The GM Nation? debate was commissioned by the government as one of three investigations into GM issues - the other two are a science review and a report into the costs and benefits of GM crops, both published in July.
The science review - of 600 papers - carried out by a 24-member panel concluded there was no evidence that eating GM produce poses any threat to human health but said more research was needed on the potential effects of GM crops on wildlife. The cost-benefit report said weak consumer demand means the current generation of GM crops is of little economic value to the UK.
Margaret Beckett, the government minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has promised to make a written response and to indicate what has been learned from the debate when making future policy announcements on GM.
"I will reflect carefully on the findings, along with those of the science review and our costs and benefits study, before publishing our response," Beckett said. "We said that we will listen, and we will."
Results of field-scale trials of herbicide-tolerant GM crops held across the UK are due to be published Oct. 16. The government also is awaiting a report from the Agriculture and Biotechnology Commission on the coexistence of GM and non-GM crops, and in particular, how to preserve the integrity of organic crops.