Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report


Public concerns and values

34. Clearly there is concern amongst the public about GM food and genetic modification in general. There are also wider issues of the confidence of the public in the advice that is offered to Government and, perhaps more significantly, the way that advice is then used. This is linked to recent experiences and the way that episodes relating to BSE, e coli, listeria and salmonella were dealt with. There is the potential for a deep and harmful divide between Government's concept of 'sound science' and public opinion. The findings of the review of attitudes to bioscience are eagerly awaited and Dr Cunningham heralded some "uncomfortable reading for Ministers".[69] He also told us that, in terms of public understanding the debate was not assisted by the recent "barrage of media hysteria".[70] We look to Government to address the underlying factors which give such stories credibility with the public. Sir Robert May told us that internationally where citizens demonstrate a greater degree of understanding of science (not just 'factoids') they tended also to worry more about it. The UK usually scored second or third in Europe in such exercises.[71]

35. The Government's written evidence to us on the existing mechanisms for incorporating public values and concerns alongside the results of scientific assessment within the decision-making process on GMOs is worth quoting in full:

"The Regulations require that all applications to release GMOs are advertised in a local newspaper within 10 days of the application being submitted to the DETR. Information about proposed releases and applications to market GMOs is placed on public registers held at regional offices of the Environment Agency and on the DETR website in sufficient time to allow public comment. The advice from ACRE to the Secretary of State about whether, and under which conditions, a consent should be issued is also placed on the website and the public registers before a final decision is taken. ACRE's scientific advice and all comments received from the public are taken into account in making that final decision."[72]

36. We think this is plainly inadequate. The recent report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), Setting Environmental Standards[73], recommended that DETR should consider how new methods for articulating public values should be incorporated into the procedures for considering environmental issues and setting environmental standards, including the framing of questions to be addressed in analysis and communicating the results in a comprehensible form. We recommend that the advice of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on the incorporation of public values and concerns be applied to GMO policy. We also agree with Baroness Young's personal view that, if public confidence in the Government's monitoring of genetic modification is to be rebuilt, it is a task for concerted effort by Government over 5 to 10 years. We certainly believe that an improved information strategy is required if the Government is to address what Ministers described as "hysteria" in the press. Underpinning this, a clear strategy is needed for what the UK wants out of biotechnology to provide people with an idea of what the benefits are and why, therefore, the efforts and taxpayers' resources put into the regulation are worth it.

37. The principal concerns expressed in evidence about the advisory system were perceptions that the advisory committees were not sufficiently independent of the industry; that they were not adequately open nor transparent; and that they did not have sufficiently broad memberships. There appears to be a tension between two of the demands of credibility for an advisory system: for expertise and independence. In the biotechnology sector expertise is often linked with the industry. This is sometimes direct employment but more often it is through less direct funding links caused by the Rothschild reforms of the 1980s which encouraged research institutions to go out and secure funding from industry creating closer links between the science base, public research and commercial interests. We have not received convincing evidence of undue influence being effected through these indirect channels. ACRE traditionally has had two members directly employed by the industry.[74] Mr Meacher told us that, without reflection on the work or integrity of the members concerned, this practice would not continue because of the need for ACRE's independence to be above a peradventure of a doubt. He said that industry representation would be catered for elsewhere in the system, heralding clearly the establishment of an environmental stakeholders forum.[75]

38. The regulatory system for GMOs is technical rather than ethical. The UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA) contrasted the approach to GMOs with the regulation of human genetic manipulation which they describe as having been introduced on the basis of widespread public agreement about what was ethically acceptable. There is no equivalent consensus on GM crops - and no mechanism to seek to build one.[76] While this should primarily be a task for a body over-arching the regulatory system, we believe that there must also be lay personnel on each of the advisory bodies. Mr Meacher told us that the creation of a strategic forum would obviate the need for lay representation from environmental groups within ACRE.[77] Technical expertise is vital of course and must be the mainstay of the advisory bodies however, we believe there must be a leavening of the scientists' approach to what is significant by persons with other frames of reference and non-scientific expertise. We applaud Mr Rooker's commitment to this integrated approach.[78] We believe that there should be consistent protocols for the inclusion of lay members on all the advisory committees on GMOs.

39. Openness and transparency are also key elements in any attempt to improve the confidence of the public in this process. While the agenda and minutes of meetings of the ACNFP and ACRE may not often be the subject of debate in the pub, their accessibility, as well as ACNFP's open meetings are to be welcomed as contributions to the potential for informed debate. This also should be consistent across the regulatory and advisory bodies. Here MAFF does not score so highly as many witnesses commentated on the lesser openness of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides.[79] We recommend consistent arrangements for openness and transparency of proceedings across all the advisory bodies - and we single out the practice of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides as in need of reform.

40. We received a further proposal to this end by UKELA for the Government to provide detailed guidance on the criteria which the regulatory bodies should apply in its decision-making.[80] This would appear to be being addressed at a European level in terms of the debate over the guidance on risk assessment to be annexed to any revised Deliberate Release Directive. We note the trenchant criticisms made about these annexes by witnesses to the Lords inquiry.[81] We believe that while it is important for there to be guidance on the questions that are asked it is even more important for there to be guidance on the interpretation of the answers. We recommend that the Government pursue agreement in Europe on detailed guidance on risk assessment in terms of both the procedures to be followed and the evaluation of the results. We further support the proposal of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that there be comprehensive explanations attached to every official decision on GMOs.

69  Q213 Back

70  QQ165 Back

71  Q158 Back

72  Ev p63 Back

73  Op. Cit., Cm 4053, p112 Back

74  A legacy of its health and safety provenance.  Back

75  Q374 and 377 Back

76  Appendix 16 Back

77  Q377 Back

78  Q379 Back

79  See for example Appendix 6. Back

80  Appendix 16 Back

81  HL 11-I, paragraph 93 Back

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