DUBLIN, Ireland - The Irish government has launched the second phase of a public consultation process on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but has run into objections from anti-GMO campaigners, who claim that arrangements for a public debate, due to be held this spring, are loaded in favor of the pro-biotechnology contingent.

The Department of the Environment has avoided holding a consensus debate of the type held in several European countries, because the outcome of initiatives of this type has generally been unfavorable to biotechnology. Instead, the department has set up a complicated structure based on four stakeholders, each of which has been invited to nominate two members to a panel to lead a two-stage debate.

These stakeholders include the Irish Bioindustry Association; the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which is the governmental department responsible for industry and science policy, including biotechnology; representatives of the research community; and nominees of 18 non-governmental organizations that responded to a consultation paper that originally launched this process last year. (See BioWorld International, Aug. 26, 1998, p. 1.)

The first phase will involve the identification of the key issues surrounding the deliberate release of GMOs. The second, which will take place some weeks later, will involve further analysis and discussion of these issues. An independent chairperson will then produce a synthesis report that will feed into a government policy statement on the issue.

However, Genetic Concern, Ireland's most vocal anti-GMO campaign group, has protested that the panel will be unrepresentative. Three of the four participants involved in the process, according to the group's spokesman, Quentin Gargan, are pro-biotechnology. "Democracy is supposed to represent the opinions of ordinary people, not the opinions of experts," he said. His group, which has not yet decided whether it will participate in the current process, favors a consensus debate involving a panel of lay people who receive a briefing from experts on both side.

Matt Moran, director of the Irish Bioindustry Association, disagreed. "I don't see how that approach could stack up against having [the] informed views of experts," he said. "We think that each party is [being] given a fair opportunity to state its case."