Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution - Science and Technology Committee Contents

6  Public information and discourse

114. This chapter focuses on how the public debate about genetic modification has been framed, how it has evolved, and how a more productive conversation about science and technology in general, and food and farming in particular, might be initiated in the UK.

Public debate and 'GM': a brief history

115. Several public engagement initiatives focused on agricultural biotechnology, specifically genetic modification, have taken place in the UK over the last 20 years. The first of these, in 1994, was a three-day 'consensus conference' on plant biotechnology. Over the course of this three-day "experiment in democracy", a panel made up of 16 lay volunteers selected and took evidence from a variety of witnesses, before delivering a "verdict" that offered its "qualified support" to the technology.[376] The panel advocated close regulation and clear labelling of genetically modified plants, but concluded that:

    there is scope for people to intervene in controlled ways which have the potential to provide significant benefits, and at the same time to satisfy the requirements of those people who feel that matters are progressing too quickly with an implied lack of care.[377]

A decade later, another unique public engagement exercise, the "unprecedented" UK-wide GM Nation? debate, reached a far less optimistic conclusion, suggesting that people were "generally uneasy" about GM and finding "little support for the early commercialisation of GM crops".[378] However, the debate was widely criticised: according to an independent evaluation, it suffered from "a number of important flaws in terms of both design and implementation", which potentially led to an overestimation of the level of outright opposition to GM.[379] Nevertheless, the debate was influential: in its response to the exercise, the Government stated that it took "public concern very seriously" and had "weighed public opinion alongside the scientific evidence" in its policy development, promising to "protect human health and the environment through robust regulation of GM crops on a case-by-case basis, consistent with the precautionary principle".[380]

116. The challenges and potential pitfalls of public debate about this issue, highlighted by GM Nation, came to the fore once again in 2009, when, at the request of the Government, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced that it would carry out "a programme of consumer engagement on GM food and other emerging [food] technologies".[381] An independent steering group consisting of "public dialogue specialists and people involved in different areas of GM and with different views on the subject" was set up to "inform and shape" the project and make "key decisions about how the dialogue is designed and delivered".[382] In June 2010, members of this steering group, Professor Brian Wynne, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Lancaster, and Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK, resigned due to what Professor Wynne called the FSA's "pro-GM policy stance".[383] Professor Wynne criticized the "narrow" way in which the dialogue had been framed, arguing that:

    if no one challenges the institutional dogma […] that the issues are scientific and the only perspective which can be properly used to assess these is (so-called) 'sound science', then these wider frameworks will be doomed to dismissal before they have been properly heard.[384]

The resignations generated significant media coverage and in September 2010 the then Science Minister, David Willetts MP, announced that the planned dialogue project would "not continue in its current format".[385] Mr Willetts explained that the Government was instead "taking this valuable opportunity to step back and review past dialogues on GM and other areas of science to ensure we understand how best to engage the public over such issues".[386]

117. Since the collapse of the planned FSA project in 2010, no further Government-led dialogue on genetic modification, agricultural biotechnology or food technology more generally has taken place. However, survey results suggest that views have evolved since the 2003 GM Nation debate. George Freeman MP, Minister for Life Sciences, provided a summary of some of this evidence:

    The Institute of Grocery Distribution, as you will be aware, do periodic surveys. They report this year that most UK consumers now describe themselves as neutral towards GM foods, whatever is meant by that. The FSA tracker survey suggests that GM is now of less concern to consumers than it was some time ago, and the 2014 Public Attitude to Science Survey reported that more people think that the benefits of GM crops now outweigh the risks. These are tentative data, but I think they suggest […] that we have to continually reassure but also promote the benefits [of genetic crop technologies]. I think that the public and consumers see the problems and they will begin to support this whole area more, provided they are reassured and understand them.[387]

Similar conclusions were drawn by Dr Jack Stilgoe, University College London, who "strongly agreed" that survey data suggested "ambivalence within the general public" on this subject and Síle Lane, Sense about Science, who stated that "GM" was "just not high on people's agenda".[388]

Initiating a new debate

118. As the outline above indicates, the public debate about technological advances in plant science has long been centred on the notion of 'GM' and, often, the question of whether or not it is 'safe'. However, according to Sciencewise, although anxieties about safety are the "entry point" for many people's understanding of such technologies, "these concerns are the start of the discussion rather than the end".[389] A Sciencewise review of past public dialogue exercises suggested that other common concerns about 'GM' include: its perceived novelty; uncertainty about its impact on complex ecosystems; potential socio-economic issues related to corporate control of GM assets, and a general lack of confidence in the ability of scientists, companies and governments to "understand and regulate the myriad possible implications of new science and technology".[390] This lends weight to the claim made by Dr Paul Burrows, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, that "GM has become a lightning rod for many other issues—about fairness, access and corporate control of the food system".[391]

119. The extent to which this technology has become the focus of broader ideological concerns about the agricultural system is also reflected in the explanations given to us by those opposed to genetic modification. While citing the "safety" of genetically modified crops as a concern, Liz O'Neill, GM Freeze, referred repeatedly to the "commercial environment" surrounding these products and the "control" conferred on large multinationals by the patent system.[392] She stated that the "one absolute position" that her organisation held was that "genetic resources are a public good and should not be owned by anybody".[393] Peter Melchett, Soil Association, couched his organisation's position in similar terms, stating that "organic standards are not based simply on science" and arguing that "the values of the people who buy organic food would not accept GM in organic [farming]".[394] Professor Andy Stirling, University of Sussex, saw no problem with such arguments, characterising them as a "legitimate expression[s] of concern" that are often unfairly characterised as "ideological opposition" when applied to new technologies.[395] However, Professor Leyser, Royal Society, argued that channelling such concerns into a single technology area could be damaging:

    GM has attracted, as a magnet, all the issues that people are concerned about in agriculture. They are real and important issues, but none of them has anything to do with the technique. As a result of the absurd focus on GM, we are ignoring all these broader issues, and the problems that we would like to address are going unaddressed because everybody is banging on about GM.[396]

120. Several witnesses emphasised the need to reframe the public debate in order to consider this contested group of technologies in the wider setting of other plant breeding techniques and the wider issue of food security. Síle Lane, Sense about Science, stated that the "framing of the subject is what forms people's opinions" and, in the case of genetic modification, the technology had been taken "out of context" and was not seen as "one of a suite of plant breeding techniques" as it should be.[397] Sir Roland Jackson, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, agreed with the need for this contextual frame to be widened, stating that "if you have a major issue like this in a democracy, one of the solutions is to reframe the problem and look at it from a different and broader angle"; that is, "in the context of global food supply and global food security".[398] Professor Rosemary Hails, Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, stated that there was a need to initiate "a debate about what farming systems are going to deliver what suite of benefits" in the future: a debate that "GM" forms "a very small part of".[399]

121. The term 'GM' has become a lightning rod for much broader public anxiety, in particular regarding our environmental future and the level of control wielded by large multinationals. These are legitimate concerns, but are currently centred on an inappropriate target. Whether a GM product is 'good' or 'bad', either for the environment or for society more broadly, should focus more clearly on how it is used than the technology utilised to produce it. This fact is lost in the continuing focus on 'GM'. There is a need to reframe and widen the public debate to encourage a more productive conversation about what we, as a society, want from our food supply and what sort of agriculture we would like that supply to be based upon.

We see two main drivers for achieving this: improving the quality and nature of the information available to the public and initiating a wider, more participatory debate.


122. Science communication experts accept that improved public understanding of science does not inevitably lead to greater support for the fruits of its labour. What's more, any attempt to neutrally inform the public is invariably tainted by value-laden framings and assumptions and even the very concept of a single indiscriminate 'public' is problematic. Nevertheless, public dialogue is predicated on the notion that participants have some understanding of what is being debated and evidence suggests that, in the case of genetic modification and many other areas of science and technology, there is both and a need and a desire for the public to be more fully informed.

123. A key finding of the 2003 GM Nation debate was that people felt that they did "not have enough reliable, independent information to make up their minds" about genetic modification.[400] The debate highlighted a "broad desire" from participants "to know more" and "a very strong wish—almost a longing" to be "better informed about GM from sources they could trust".[401] More recent evidence echoes these findings. Sue Davies, Chief Policy Adviser for Which?, told us that "a lot of people feel that they need more information" about genetic modification, and about "new technologies more generally".[402] According to Jon Woolven, Strategy and Innovation Director at the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), IGD research indicates that "even now after all the publicity on this topic, only 20% of people feel they have a good understanding of GM" and "only about three quarters of those people give a definition that we feel comes anywhere close".[403] He considered "lack of public understanding" to be "the single biggest issue" underlying consumer attitudes to genetically modified crops.[404] Evidence suggests that a better understanding of the benefits of genetic technologies could be an important influence on public opinion. A 2014 YouGov survey found that only 22% of respondents thought that the Government should be "promoting the adoption of GM technology in the UK".[405] However, a 2012 survey commissioned by The Independent, which framed the technology in terms of its potential agricultural benefits, found that 64% thought that "experiments to develop GM crops should be encouraged by government" if this would enable farmers to "reduce the amount of pesticides they use".[406]

124. Evidence suggests that members of the public currently find it difficult to develop an informed opinion about whether or not they support technologies such as genetic modification. This needs to change if there is to be meaningful public debate and if future policy is to be usefully informed by the insights that such debate can bring.

We have briefly considered the role of some of the most important sources of public information and offer some suggestions as to how they might better support informed debate.


125. According to the most recent Public Attitudes to Science survey, the traditional media remain the most regular source of public information about science (see figure 2). Over half (59%) of respondents said that television was "one of their two most regular sources of information on science, either in the form of TV news programmes (42%) or non-news programmes (26%)", with print newspapers the third most common source of information.[407] A particularly important source of public information is the BBC. Under the terms of its Royal Charter, the BBC has a responsibility to "promote education and learning".[408] It aims to do this by stimulating "informal learning across a full range of subjects and issues", engaging audiences in "activities targeted to achieve specific outcomes that benefit society" and promoting and supporting "formal educational goals".[409]

126. In our 2014 report, Communicating climate science, which closely considered the quality of BBC science coverage, we found "the role of the BBC, as the leading public service broadcaster, to be central to public understanding" of climate science, but were "disappointed to find it lacked a clear understanding of the information needs of its audience" in relation to this controversial topic.[410] We also highlighted concerns about the BBC's pursuit of impartiality potentially leading to "false balance" and stated that while "scientists, politicians, lobbying groups and other interested parties should be heard" on controversial topics, "the BBC should be clear on what role its interviewees have and should be careful not to treat lobbying groups as disinterested experts".[411]

127. We have performed no detailed study of BBC coverage for this inquiry; however, we again emphasise the central role that the BBC plays in communicating science and remind it of its responsibility, as a public sector broadcaster, to promote learning and encourage conversation and debate about this important topic. We encourage all of the media, particularly public broadcasters, to conduct a review of their own content on genetic modification, 'GM' and other related topics to ensure that it is fulfilling these public duties. In particular, consideration should be given to how this topic is framed and whether it is being considered broadly enough in the context of other agricultural methods and wider issues of food production and food security.

Non-governmental organisations

128. In its 2013 advice to the Prime Minister, the Council for Science and Technology stated that those providing information to the public on genetic modification, "including retailers, NGOs and the media", had "a duty to ensure that the debate reflects the evidence accurately".[412] This is not being heeded by some prominent non-governmental organisations. Examples of statements that appear to deliberately misrepresent the available evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms include the following:

·  "GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health" (Greenpeace International);[413]

·  "GM represents probably the biggest uncontrolled experiment ever conducted by humans. […] Our direct consumption of GM food, but also our indirect consumption of it via animals that have in turn been fed GM feed, poses very serious risks to human health and the environment" (Alliance for Natural Health);[414]

·  "GM food has failed to deliver on the industry's promises. It hasn't tackled hunger or helped most of the world's farmers. Contamination of our food is rising, the environment is under threat and long-term health impacts are still unknown. With safe alternatives like sustainable, organic farming we simply don't need GM" (Friends of the Earth);[415]

·  "GM crops have the potential to cause massive social, economic and environmental damage worldwide, yet they are poorly tested and regulations are weak" (GM Freeze).[416]

As we have demonstrated elsewhere in this report, claims that genetically modified crops pose inherent environmental and health risks, are weakly regulated or have undergone little research are not supported by the available evidence.[417]

129. We are each entitled to our own opinion and value-based opposition to genetic modification, or any other technology, is perfectly legitimate. However, this does not justify knowingly and willingly misinforming the public. We strongly urge those seeking to inform the public about genetic modification and other advanced genetic plant technologies to provide an honest picture of the scientific evidence base and the regulatory controls to which these products are currently subject. Where opposition to such technologies is value-based, this should be openly acknowledged and should not be concealed behind false claims of scientific uncertainty and misleading statements regarding safety.

130. The role of non-governmental organisations in shaping debate can be demonstrated through the example of so-called 'golden rice'. Golden rice is a transgenic rice variety genetically modified to contain beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A and a naturally occurring pigment common to many fruit and vegetables, including carrot, papaya and squash.[418] It was developed by public-sector scientists in the late 1990s as a potential remedy for vitamin A deficiency, a major cause of preventable blindness in developing countries. According to the World Health Organisation, "an estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient" and "250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight".[419] According to the Royal Society:

    The first generation of golden rice varieties contained only low levels of b-carotene and there was some scepticism as to whether their introduction would mitigate vitamin A deficiency and benefit poor, rice-dependent households. However, there are now lines with much higher levels of b-carotene and good evidence from clinical trials that it is an effective source of vitamin A.[420]

International Rice Research Institute, a non-profit research organisation and the lead for the global 'Golden Rice Project', states that "golden rice is undergoing rigorous safety evaluations by regulators throughout its development" and "will be available to farmers and consumers only after it has been determined to be safe for humans, animals, and the environment and authorized for propagation and consumption by the appropriate regulatory authorities".[421]

131. Greenpeace actively campaigns against the use of golden rice, stating on its website that golden rice is "environmentally irresponsible, poses risks to human health, and could compromise food, nutrition and financial security".[422] Dr Parr presented his organisation's opposition to us in somewhat less absolute terms:

    My take on golden rice is that it is a last resort. It is the least favourable option, given the challenges of nutrition across the spectrum. […] People who are on the ground dealing with this in the Philippines see the focus and attention on golden rice acting as a disincentive to dealing with some of the other more serious and crosscutting issues. […] It is a stop-gap and a sticking plaster for a much deeper problem.[423]

In an interview of BBC Radio 4's Today programme in October 2014, Dr Parr stated that "the real solution" to vitamin A deficiency was to provide people with access to "a proper balanced diet".[424] He acknowledged that "biofortification"—that is, increasing the nutritional value of crops through biological means, such as conventional or advanced breeding techniques—might be "appropriate" under "certain circumstances" in which more comprehensive solutions could not be delivered quickly, but insinuated that "other biotechnologies, like marker-assisted breeding" could offer an alternative to golden rice.[425] However, Professor Sir David Baulcombe, University of Cambridge, stated that there was "no way that you could use marker-assisted breeding to produce a variety that has the nutritional benefits of golden rice" and added that the reason why there was so much emphasis on golden rice was "because of the resistance to it" by organisations such as Greenpeace.[426] Mark Cantley, an ex-employee of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research, described such campaigns as "wicked" and claimed that they were the "driven by exaggerated 'environmental' concerns" and "a casual attitude to deaths and disabilities caused elsewhere in the world".[427] The former Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson MP, similarly characterised such opposition to golden rice as "wicked" in an interview 2013.[428]

132. We question the basis for Greenpeace's opposition to golden rice—a crop that is undergoing rigorous safety evaluations and has the potential to help protect many hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world from preventable blindness and early death—and question its public claim that this crop is "environmentally irresponsible" and "poses risks to human health". We recognise that biofortification cannot replace a balanced diet but remind those who oppose golden rice that the best should not be the enemy of the good. We urge those organisations that actively campaign against the take-up of golden rice in other regions of the world to carefully consider how this position impacts on their professed humanitarian aims. We recommend that all such organisations—and specifically Greenpeace—review their public communication materials to ensure that they are evidence-based and honest in setting out the reasons for opposition to this technology.

The Government and its agencies

133. Evidence suggests that the Government, its advisers and its agencies are also susceptible to a narrow and, on occasion, misleading framing of advanced genetic approaches. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' policy pages on GOV.UK include a section focused on "genetic modification", which contains no mention of the Government's policy on other breeding techniques or other types of novel crop.[429] Another page includes a section on "controlling cloning and genetic modification", framing the Government's policy on genetic modification in the context of the more controversial and novel technology of animal cloning.[430] This framing of 'GM' in terms of its 'novelty' continues across the Government's scientific advisory structure. Professor Guy Poppy, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), stated that he did not think that "GM" should be "singled out" in the FSA's communications with the public.[431] However, the science and policy pages of the FSA website currently lists "GM foods" as a specific category of "novel food", alongside "nanotechnology" and, once again, "cloned animals".[432] When asked why advanced genetic approaches had been framed in this way, Professor Poppy acknowledged that this was a "good question" but explained that "GM" had been placed in the context of these other technologies because "they are probably the modern technologies that people have heard of and which [consumers] would bring to our attention".[433] The titles of the recent work by the Council for Science and Technology—a "GM Science update" and a letter to the Prime Minister on the subject of "GM technologies"—were also narrowly framed, although the content included a much broader consideration of advanced genetic approaches and their agricultural contexts.[434]

134. The role of the Government's framing of "GM" in perpetuating old debates is perhaps best illustrated by an example. In her recent appearance at the Oxford Farming Conference, Liz Truss MP made her first public mention of "GM" in her role as Secretary of State.[435] In her speech, Ms Truss stated that she had called for EU decisions on "issues like pesticides and GM cultivation to be made on scientific evidence alone", commenting afterwards that "GM crops have a role to play" in the UK.[436] A headline from the following day's Mail Online ran as follows:

    'Eco-friendly' Frankenfoods should be grown in Britain, says Minister, as she backs controversial technology for first time.[437]

135. By constantly framing genetic modification alongside other novel, controversial or potentially harmful technologies (for example, nanotechnology, animal cloning and pesticides), the Government encourages the public to understand genetic modification in the same terms. By failing to widen its framing beyond the narrow concept of 'GM', the Government also perpetuates old debates and preserves the perceived distinction between genetically modified and conventionally bred plants. Finally, by publicly insisting that decisions about this technology be made on the basis of scientific advice alone, the Government shuts down opportunities for wider debate and encourages those who are simply opposed to the technology to continue to contest the science. We recommend that both the Government and the Food Standards Agency review their public communications on genetic modification and related topics to ensure that these are framed in a way that encourages constructive public debate. Advice on this process should be sought from the Sciencewise expert resource centre and identified changes should be made by the end of 2015.

136. The notion that genetically modified crops are inherently dissimilar to other types of crop is also built into the Government's scientific advisory structure itself. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has acknowledged that the "environmental consequences" of cultivating a particular crop are unlikely to be affected by "the techniques used for trait manipulation" and has strongly advocated a move to a trait-based regulatory system.[438] However, its own remit limits its advice primarily to those crops produced via genetic modification.[439] According to Professor Rosemary Hails, ACRE Chair, ACRE's primary role is to "provide advice on the risk that GMOs pose to the environment and to human health in the context of environmental exposure".[440] She continued:

    We do not do food and feed safety or contained use; that is covered elsewhere. We also do not look at plants or organisms used in agriculture or veterinary medicine that are not produced by genetic modification. Occasionally we are also asked to provide advice to DEFRA on non-native organisms. That is a non-statutory role.[441]

Professor Hails acknowledged the "illogicality" of her Committee's focus on a single technology and stated that it would be "more scientifically justifiable for the trigger to be on the properties of the organism" as, "if you are introducing a novel crop to this country, there may be something about its novelty that should be regulated to prevent it from becoming weedy or invasive".[442] There is currently no equivalent committee advising the Government on the risks of cultivating conventionally-bred novel crops.

137. In order to shift both regulatory and public focus from process to trait, the Government must lead by example. It must also take steps to ensure that it is receiving appropriate scientific advice on the risks posed by cultivating conventionally-bred novel plants. We recommend that the remit of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment be expanded to include cultivation of all novel plants, including those not legally defined as genetically modified organisms. The name of the committee should be amended to reflect this expanded remit.

Is more information needed?

138. The 2003 GM Nation debate showed that participants had "a very strong wish—almost a longing" to be "better informed about GM from sources they could trust".[443] The more recent Public Attitudes to Science survey suggests that, in 2014, most people still "do not feel informed about" genetically modified crops and Sue Davies, Which?, confirmed that "a lot of people feel that they need more information" about this technology area, as they are "not really clear as to what the issues are".[444] In light of this, we asked several witnesses where they would direct someone who wanted to learn more about this technology. We received a broad range of answers. Professor Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, made repeated reference in his answer to the academic literature and the traditional media,[445] and also mentioned the Science Media Centre and documents produced by scientific organisations such as the Royal Society.[446] He also highlighted the role of the plant science community itself in communicating its work to the public.[447] Sile Lane, Sense about Science, highlighted the work of her own organisation, a charity that "equips people to make sense of science and evidence", and, like Sir Mark, referred to the importance of "local engagement" undertaken by scientists at institutes such as Rothamsted Research.[448] Other witnesses made reference to government websites,[449] the Food Standards Agency (FSA)[450] and other, perhaps less obvious sources of information, such as minutes of FSA meetings and those of other advisory bodies.[451] As Sir Mark acknowledged, there is currently no "single core of public engagement materials on GM" and "sometimes one of the challenges" in obtaining information about this topic "is to recognise the status of different documents".[452]

139. We have come across this challenge—of ensuring that the public has access to the information it needs in order to reach an informed opinion about emerging issues in science and technology—several times during this parliament, and have recommended a variety of different solutions. Most recently, in our 2014 report, Communicating climate science, we encouraged the Government to "work with the learned societies and national academies to develop a source of information on climate science" that was "comprehensible to the general public and responsive to both current developments and uncertainties in the science".[453] The Government accepted this recommendation and stated that it was "looking at ways to achieve this".[454] However, witnesses differed in their views about whether a similar resource might be useful with regard to plant biotechnology. Dr Jack Stilgoe, University College London, rejected the idea of "a single one-stop shop" for information about genetic modification, because he did not think the issue could be "defined in a way such that there will be one relevant body".[455] Professor Brian Wynne, University of Lancaster, agreed that there was "no such thing" as a "singular, independent source of scientific knowledge" and argued that "there should not be", because "the nature of scientific knowledge does not allow" for such a value-neutral perspective.[456] Nevertheless, according to Síle Lane, Sense about Science, while facts are not "the be-all or end-all", "we should not ask people to vote or have an opinion on something when all the information has not been put before them".[457]

140. In its July 2014 report on food security, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that the Government "do more to inform the public about the potential beneficial impacts of growing GM crops in the UK" and "encourage an evidence-led public debate" about this subject.[458] The Council for Science and Technology also recently advised the Prime Minister that the Government had a role to play in "explaining [genetic modification], its benefits and how it is regulated".[459] Mr Freeman acknowledged that there was a need to "somehow […] grow public understanding" of this area of technology and that the Government had "a role" in leading that debate.[460] However, Lord de Mauley made no mention of Defra's role in communicating with the public and described his department's "primary" role in relation to genetic modification as that of "regulator".[461]

141. We highlighted in our previous report Communicating climate science that failure by government to engage with the public on controversial topics could create a vacuum in which inaccurate arguments are allowed to flourish without challenge. While the Government has been vocal in its support of genetic modification, it has done little to ensure that the public have access to the resources they need to come to an informed opinion, enabling those with vested interests to dominate the debate and ensure that it remains polarised. No source of information, scientific or otherwise, is ever entirely value-neutral, but the Government must do more to influence the narrative and direct people towards other accurate sources of information. We recommend that the Government work with the National Academies, in collaboration with Sciencewise, to develop a new online information 'hub' covering emerging topics in science and technology. This should include sections on both climate science and new plant breeding technologies. Each topic area should provide a basic overview of the current evidence base, acknowledging uncertainties where they exist, and should make reference to both scientific and non-scientific considerations. A range of links to other reliable sources of information on all of these aspects should be provided, so that people can tailor their learning to their own priorities and concerns. In the longer term, we envisage this resource becoming a centre for both public information and public debate; the starting point for a more active dialogue about developments in science and technology, especially those related to policy.


142. In its 2012 report, Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics recommended that policy concerning emerging biotechnologies be informed by "public discourse ethics", intended to "give public decision making a properly public orientation by opening up the framing of decisions to the full range of understandings and values that are relevant to them" (see also paragraph 44).[462] Several other witnesses also emphasised the need for public dialogue to inform decision making about science and technology policy. Sir Roland Jackson, a member of the Nuffield Council and Chair of Sciencewise, stated that public and stakeholder engagement had "quite a role to play" in helping to define society's response to emerging technologies and the Science Council stated that "only through increased dialogue […], transparency and openness" would the public "be confident enough to accept the wider use of GM technology".[463] In its recent letter to the Prime Minister, the Council for Science and Technology recognised that the quality of public debate about genetic modification "is substantially enhanced if we acknowledge the different ways in which citizens very properly approach complex issues" and stated that "wider concerns, which go beyond the scientific evidence" needed to be "acknowledged and addressed" in order to "avoid technical issues becoming vehicles for social concerns".[464]

143. The need for value-based considerations to be considered alongside scientific ones has been a strong theme of this report. Professor Andy Stirling, University of Sussex, stated that there was "no stage at which a debate on any technology does not involve values" and that "really is something we should celebrate".[465] However, according to Sir Roland, while the voice of both academia and industry is "strongly" heard across government, "we do not hear so clearly in an integrated way the voice of the rest of civil society" which "tends to have to shout from the sidelines, because it is not involved in Government structures".[466] One of the recommendations of the 1999 Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on genetically modified crops was the establishment of an "independent biotechnology advisory committee to consider scientific and ethical issues together with public values associated with GM crops".[467] According to Sir Roland, a member of the Council, this "effectively became the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission", which "had broader oversight of this area and brought societal values and perspectives into the discussion".[468] This body was abolished in 2004 following controversy over its advice and the extent to which it differed from government policy at the time.[469] No replacement body has since been established and attempts at public deliberation in this area have had mixed success (see paragraphs 112-114). Equivalent bodies do, however, exist elsewhere in the policy-making landscape. Several years ago, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) set up a permanent 'Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel', which is responsible for providing "strategic input on the social dimensions of the conduct and outcomes of research supported by BBSRC".[470] It has considered and provided advice on topics including predictive health,[471] food security[472] and bioenergy.[473] The Medical Research Council has an 'Ethics, Regulation and Public Involvement' committee, responsible for providing advice on policy related to research involving human participants and other issues involving the public, and also provides support to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that examines and reports on ethical issues in biology and medicine.[474] Medical policy is also informed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence's (NICE) 'citizens council', a demographically diverse panel of 30 members of the public, responsible for providing NICE with "a public perspective on overarching moral and ethical issues that NICE has to take account of when producing guidance".[475] However, other areas of science and technology are less well covered and there is currently no equivalent body responsible for providing guidance to policy-makers on either agricultural issues, or other policy-relevant topics related to science and technology.

144. When making decisions about emerging issues in science and technology, we consider it important that a broad range of social and ethical factors be taken into consideration. These should be considered alongside scientific advice and evidence, but should remain distinct from it. We recommend that ACRE should, in its recommended expanded role, establish a permanent 'Citizens Council' based on the model developed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. This new Council should be responsible for considering and providing advice on the potential social and ethical impacts of developments within ACRE's remit. Sciencewise could ensure best practice in the framing and facilitation of debate as well as coordinating the work of all such citizen councils.

The role of Sciencewise

145. Sciencewise is a Government-funded "national centre for public dialogue" which aims to "to support policy makers to commission and use excellent public dialogue as an integral part of policy making".[476] Its creation stemmed from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's 2000 report, Science and Society, which highlighted the importance of public input into challenging areas of new and emerging science and called for more meaningful engagement between scientists, policy makers and the public.[477] Following an initial round of funding for specific projects in the mid-2000s, the Council for Science and Technology's recommended that the Government "create a mechanism" through which learnings from future dialogue projects could be captured and shared, and which would help generate "a change in culture where dialogue is seen as a normal part of government's policy development processes on science and technology related issues".[478] Sciencewise was subsequently established as a permanent "expert resource centre for public dialogue in science and innovation" in 2007.[479]

146. According to an internal review of Sciencewise's work between 2010 and 2012:

    Evidence shows that public dialogue projects completed with Sciencewise support: influenced policy decisions and plans […]; improved policy and decision-making […]; helped policy makers gain new perspectives and insights from the public participants […]; and influenced policy and decision making systems to include more public dialogue in future. In addition, dialogue results were often widely disseminated to policy and decision makers. Unexpected outcomes included reduced conflict between stakeholders, and new local initiatives being established.[480]

A further independent evaluation of Sciencewise's work from 2012 onwards is currently underway and is expected to "feed into decisions" by the Government "about the future of the programme".[481] Sciencewise is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and we understand that its annual budget is approximately £2.7 million.[482]

147. When asked about the role of Sciencewise, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, stated that "public funding of science engagement is important and, therefore, the programme that Sciencewise does is important".[483] He agreed with the "broad principle" that Government should be funding such work but declined to comment on whether or not Sciencewise's funding should be maintained.[484] George Freeman MP, Minister for Life Sciences, stated that Sciencewise played a part in "promoting and building a public dialogue, a public discourse, a public understanding, and the feeding in of public views across policy making" and emphasised the importance of this activity.[485] However, when asked about the organisation's future, Mr Freeman did not comment on whether or not Sciencewise's funding would be renewed.[486]

148. Public discourse should play a key role in informing policy concerning society's use of science and technology and Sciencewise is central to ensuring that this is ingrained in the policy-making process. We recommend that the Government renew its support for Sciencewise and commit to stable or uplifted funding over the next five years.

The role of Government

149. The Government was clear about the need to widen the frame of debate about genetic crop technologies. George Freeman MP, Minister for Life Sciences, stated that there was a need to:

    move this debate on from where it has slightly been locked in the public discourse, as GMOs and genetically modified food, to a much broader discussion about how we embrace the extraordinary benefits of genetics across health, and, more broadly, animal health, plant health, agricultural sustainability, productivity, the ecosystem and habitat development.[487]

Mr Freeman also emphasised the need to "open up public understanding of the range of different technologies and applications" available to plant breeders, and "point out that traditional breeding—Mendelian, sort of caveman seed choice—is a very slow and clumsy form of genetic manipulation of seed stock".[488]

150. During our inquiry, we learned that the Government Office for Science, in collaboration with Which? and Sciencewise, had recently started work on a dialogue project intended to help policy-makers understand "the different challenges facing the food system".[489] According to the project's webpage, its objectives are:

·  to explore public and consumer awareness and perspectives of current food system problems, challenges and opportunities; and

·  to explore public and consumer attitudes to potential solutions (including; types of food production methods, new technologies or other solutions in the context of demand-side approaches and waste reduction) that could be used to address the challenges of food supply and sustainable intensification.[490]

Sue Davies, Chief Policy Adviser at Which?, explained that this project would "take specific case studies of foods and explore the social issues and challenges in terms of food security, sustainability, health, food prices" and so on.[491] She emphasised that "GM" was "not the starting point" for this project; rather, "it is about technologies and different solutions in general".[492] According to Ms Davies, the project involves "an external advisory group and input from different Government Departments to make it as relevant to policy as possible".[493] We understand that the project is likely to consist of six events in three different locations and that it is supported by a grant from Sciencewise of approximately £42,000.[494] Sir Mark indicated that it was likely to publish its outputs at some point in 2015.[495]

151. The Government Office for Science's planned dialogue project on the UK food system is a positive step and, we hope, will enable the Government to think more broadly about the public's priorities and concerns in relation to food production. However, in our view this small-scale project does not go far enough. What is needed is a far broader, more substantive and inclusive public conversation. We recommend that the Government use the current project as a springboard to a more substantial public dialogue on the future of the UK food system. This should be on a similar scale to the 2003 'GM Nation' debate, but should draw upon the lessons learned from that exercise and should utilise the information hub recommended in paragraph 138 as an additional centre of dialogue. The information gained from this process should inform the direction of future policy in these areas. We ask that the Government set out in its response to this report a high level plan for this exercise, together with a proposed timeframe and initial budget.

376   UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology, Final report of the lay panel, November 1994 Back

377   UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology, Final report of the lay panel, November 1994 Back

378   Department of Trade and industry, 'GM Nation: the findings of the public debate', September 2003. Note: this report is not available online. Back

379   Tom Horlick-Jonesa, John Walls, Gene Rowe, Nick Pidgeon, Wouter Poortingae and Tim O'Riordan, "On evaluating the GM Nation? Public debate about the commercialisation of transgenic crops in Britain", New genetics and society, vol 25 (2006) pp.265-288. DOI:10.1080/14636770601032858 Back

380   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 'The GM Dialogue: Government Response', March 2004, para 1 Back

381   Food Standards Agency, 'Chief Executive's Report: September 2009', September 2009, para 3  Back

382   Food Standards Agency, 'Food: The use of GM: a public dialogue', August 2011, accessed 26 January 2015. Back

383   "Academic quits GM food committee", BBC News Online, 3 June 2010, accessed 26 January 2015. Back

384   Correspondence from Professor Brian Wynne to Professor John Curtice, Chair, FSA Public Dialogue Steering Committee, 31 May 2010. Available at GeneWatch, 'GeneWatch PR: New GM dialogue resignation welcomed',, accessed 26 January 2015. Back

385   Sciencewise, 'Announcement by Science Minister on GM public dialogue', September 2010, accessed January 2015. Back

386   Sciencewise, 'Announcement by Science Minister on GM public dialogue', September 2010, accessed January 2015. Back

387   Q470 [George Freeman MP] Back

388   Q58  Back

389   Sciencewise, 'Talking about GM: Approaches to Public and Stakeholder Engagement', September 2011, p.3 Back

390   Sciencewise, 'Talking about GM: Approaches to Public and Stakeholder Engagement', September 2011, pp.3-4 Back

391   Q165 Back

392   Q7 Back

393   Q4  Back

394   Q123 Back

395   Q250 [Professor Stirling] Back

396   Q22 [Professor Leyser] Back

397   Q60 [Síle Lane] Back

398   Q236 [Sir Roland Jackson] Back

399   Q439 [Professor Hails] Back

400   Department of Trade and industry, 'GM Nation: the findings of the public debate', September 2003 Back

401   Department of Trade and industry, 'GM Nation: the findings of the public debate', September 2003 Back

402   Q80 [Sue Davies] Back

403   Q80 [Jon Woolven] Back

404   Q81 [Jon Woolven] Back

405   YouGov, 'Many in Britain still sceptical of GM foods', 21 February 2014, accessed 26 January 2015 Back

406   GMC046 [Society of Biology] para 6; ComRes Opinion Poll, June 2012. Back

407   Department for Business, Innovation and Skills/Ipsos Mori, 'Public attitudes to science 2014', Main Report, March 2014, p.54 Back

408   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Royal Charter for the continuance of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Cm 6925, October 2006, article 4(b) Back

409   BBC, 'Inside the BBC: public purposes-promoting education and learning', accessed 26 January 2015 Back

410   Science and Technology Committee, Eight report of session 2013-14, Communicating climate science, HC254, April 2014, summary Back

411   Science and Technology Committee, Eight report of session 2013-14, Communicating climate science, HC254, April 2014, paras 34 & 42 Back

412   Council for Science and Technology, Letter to the Prime Minister: GM technologies, 21 November 2013, accessed 26 January 2015. Back

413   Greenpeace, 'Genetic engineering: What's wrong with genetic engineering?',, accessed 26 January 2015 Back

414   Alliance for Natural Health, 'Say No to GM', accessed 26 January 2015  Back

415   Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland, 'What's on your plate? GM food-it hasn't gone away', accessed 26 January 2015 Back

416   GM Freeze, 'Why a freeze?',, accessed 26 January 2015  Back

417   See paragraph 47 and paragraphs 59-61  Back

418   Beta carotene is what gives these foods-and golden rice-their distinctive golden colour. Back

419   World Health Organisation, 'Nutrition: micronutrient deficiencies',, accessed 26 January 2015  Back

420   The Royal Society, Reaping the benefits, October 2009, para Back

421   International Rice Research Institute, 'Frequently asked questions on Golden Rice', accessed 26 January 2015 Back

422   Greenpeace, 'What we do: Golden Rise', accessed 26 January 2015  Back

423   Q18 Back

424   Doug Parr, Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 15 October 2014. Transcript via mytranscriptbox, accessed 27 January 2015. Back

425   Doug Parr, Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 15 October 2014. Transcript via mytranscriptbox, accessed 27 January 2015. Back

426   Q19 [Professor Baulcombe] Back

427   GMC011 [Mark Cantley]  Back

428   "GM "golden rice" opponents wicked, says minister Owen Paterson", BBC News Online, 14 October 2013, accessed 27 January 2015.  Back

429   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 'Policy: Making the food and farming industry more competitive while protecting the environment', Detail: genetic modification, last updated 14 November 2014, accessed 27 January 2015. Back

430   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 'Policy: Making the food and farming industry more competitive while protecting the environment', Policy, last updated 14 November 2014, accessed 27 January 2015. Back

431   Q438 [Professor Poppy] Back

432   Food Standards Agency, 'Science and policy: Novel foods', accessed 27 January 2015 Back

433   Q439 Back

434   David Baulcombe, Jim Dunwell, Jonathan Jones, John Pickett and Pere Puigdomenech, GM science update: a report to the Council for Science and Technology, March 2014; Council for Science and Technology, Letter to the Prime Minister: GM technologies, 21 November 2013. Back

435   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environment Secretary speech at the Oxford farming conference, published 7 January 2015, accessed 26 January 2015 Back

436   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environment Secretary speech at the Oxford farming conference, published 7 January 2015, accessed 26 January 2015; "Britain must be free to grow GM food, says Minister", The Times, 8 January 2015, accessed 26 January 2015 Back

437   "Eco-friendly" Frankenfoods should be grown in Britain, says Minister, as she backs controversial technology for first time', Mail Online, 8 January 2015, accessed 27 January 2015 Back

438   Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, Report 2: Towards an evidence-based regulatory system for GMOs, 27 August 201, p.4. See also Q410 [Professor Hails] Back

439   ACRE is also responsible for providing advice on non-native species, but this takes up a relatively small amount of its time. The last non-native species to have been assessed by ACRE appears to have been the insect Aphalara itadori, a pest which primarily targets Japanese knotweed, in 2009. Back

440   Q408 [Professor Hails] Back

441   Q408 [Professor Hails] Back

442   Q416 Back

443   Department of Trade and industry, 'GM Nation: the findings of the public debate', September 2003 Back

444   Department for Business, Innovation and Skills/Ipsos Mori, 'Public attitudes to science 2014', Main Report, March 2014, p.6; Q80 [Sue Davies ] Back

445   Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2015, HC (2014-15) 958, Qq60-61; Oral evidence taken on 28 January 2015, HC (2014-15) 758, Q332 Back

446   Qq293-295 Back

447   Q295 Back

448   Q57 [Síle Lane]; Q69 [Síle Lane] Back

449   Q435 Back

450   Q438 [Professor Poppy] Back

451   Q435 [Professor Gregory] Back

452   Q295 Back

453   Science and Technology Committee, Eight report of session 2013-14, Communicating climate science, HC254, April 2014, para 107 Back

454   Science and Technology Committee, First special report of session 2014-15, Communicating climate science: Government Response to the Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2013-14, HC376, June 2014, para 35 Back

455   Q69 [Dr Stilgoe] Back

456   Q69 [Professor Wynne] Back

457   Q70 [Síle Lane] Back

458   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2013-14 Food Security, HC243, 1 July 2014, para 132 Back

459   Council for Science and Technology, Letter to the Prime Minister: GM technologies, 21 November 2013, accessed 26 January 2015. Back

460   Q453 [George Freeman MP] Back

461   Q444 [Lord de Mauley]. See also Q480 [George Freeman MP] Note (in relation to paragraph 141): We highlighted in paragraph 67 that the Government had made clear its support for genetic modification, but had stopped short of explicitly acknowledging that genetically modified crops posed no greater risk than conventionally-bred crops.  Back

462   Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good, December 2012, para 10.6 Back

463   Q227 [Sir Roland Jackson]; GMC047 [Science Council] para 4.8 Back

464   Council for Science and Technology, Letter to the Prime Minister: GM technologies, 21 November 2013, accessed 26 January 2015. Back

465   Q257 [Professor Stirling] Back

466   Q236 [Sir Roland Jackson] Back

467   GMC035 [Nuffield Council on Bioethics]  Back

468   Q219 Back

469   'Minister to abolish GM scrutiny body", The Guardian, 29 December 2004, accessed 27 January 2015  Back

470   Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, 'Bioscience for Social Strategy Panel', accessed 27 January 2015  Back

471   Bioscience for Social Strategy Panel, Minutes of the Bioscience for Society Strategy Advisory Panel meeting held on 20 May 2014, accessed 27 January 2015 Back

472   Bioscience for Social Strategy Panel, Minutes of the Bioscience for Society Strategy Advisory Panel meeting held on 20 May 2014, accessed 27 January 2015 Back

473   Bioscience for Social Strategy Panel, Minutes of the Bioscience for Society Strategy Advisory Panel meeting held on 18 January 2012, accessed 27 January 2015 Back

474   Medical Research Council, 'Ethics, Regulation & Public Involvement Committee', accessed 27 January 2015 Back

475   National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 'Get involved: Citizen's Council', accessed 27 January 2015 Back

476   Sciencewise, 'About us: aims and objectives', accessed 27 January 2015 Back

477   Sciencewise, 'About us: background', accessed 27 January 2015 Back

478   Council for Science and Technology, Policy through dialogue: informing policies based on science and technology, March 2005, para 9 Back

479   Sciencewise, 'About us: background', accessed 27 January 2015 Back

480   Sciencewise, Sciencewise - Interim Evaluation 2012, March 2013, p.1 Back

481   Sciencewise, 'Learning resources: Evaluation: Sciencewise programme evaluation',, accessed 27 January 2015 Back

482   Personal correspondence Back

483   Oral evidence taken on 28 January 2015, HC (2014-15) 758, Q335 Back

484   Oral evidence taken on 28 January 2015, HC (2014-15) 758, Qq336-337 Back

485   Q483 Back

486   Q483 Back

487   Q465 Back

488   Q453 [George Freeman MP] Back

489   Q81 [Sue Davies] Back

490   Sciencewise, 'Dialogue projects: UK food system challenges and the role of innovative production technologies and other approaches in meeting these', accessed 27 January 2015 Back

491   Q81 [Sue Davies] Back

492   Q82 Back

493   Q83 Back

494   Personal correspondence Back

495   Qq297-300 Back

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Prepared 26 February 2015