Genetically Modified Insects Contents

Chapter 5: Concerns, perceptions and public engagement

Anxieties, awareness and attitudes

150.History has shown that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are an area of high public interest. Possibly more so than any other area of new science and technology over the last 20 years, they have captured public anxieties and sparked concerns about the direction of scientific development.

151.In the UK, public awareness of the scope and potential of GM insect technologies is yet to be mapped. However, during the course of our inquiry it became clear to us that a low level of current public awareness is assumed by those working in the area. Sir Roland Jackson, Executive Chair of Sciencewise, gave a summary of the opportunities provided thus far for the public to learn about GM insects:

“There has been quite a bit of media comment and reporting about it, but no significant structured public information and engagement in that sense, or dialogue in terms of listening to what people think about the issues.”123

152.Public attitudes towards GM crops or GM in general are often taken as a substitute for likely public opinion on GM insects. On general attitudes, Sir Roland Jackson stated: “it is quite clear that there is no evidence of overwhelming intrinsic opposition to GM.”124

153.An example of a specific public outreach initiative on GM insects in the USA was brought to our attention by Dr Sarah Hartley, a Research Fellow at Nottingham University, who is investigating the relationship between science, ethics and public policy in the context of the governance of emerging technologies. She cited an analysis of the public anxieties surrounding the approval of a trial of GM diamondback moths in New York State. This analysis showed that the public was concerned about governance and about GM insects more broadly. On the implications of these concerns, Dr Hartley stated that “there is potential for public rejection of GM insects, particularly within agricultural applications.”125

154.It was suggested to us that public perception of GM insect technologies is likely to be influenced by attitudes developed in response to the public debate on GM crops. While we recognise that scientific evidence, though central, should not be the sole consideration taken into account, this highly polarised debate was characterised by a dominance of anecdotal information, misrepresentation of scientific evidence and media scaremongering. We agree with the perspective offered to us from Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive, Buglife—the Invertebrate Conservation Trust: “it is a morass of confusion.”126 We are concerned that such a debate could evolve for GM insect technologies and serve to stifle their development. Action should be taken in order to avoid this scenario.127 In this regard, we are encouraged by a recent GM wheat trial undertaken by Rothamsted Research which caused far less controversy on account of the public engagement strategies that were deployed.128

155.We envisage that specific public attitudes towards GM insect technologies may be shaped by a variety of anxieties. A number of such possible concerns were brought to our attention:

156.While some of the concerns noted above relate to GM insect technologies as a whole, there are a number of distinct concerns solicited by population suppression and population replacement strategies. In comparing population replacement strategies with population suppression approaches, Professor Paul Eggleston said to us:

“one key difference is that you would not end up with an empty ecological niche. You will have insects there at the beginning and at the end [with a population replacement strategy], and therefore food supplies for organisms that eat those insects.”129

157.While population replacement strategies may have different ecological impacts, the release of modified genetic material designed to persist in the environment presents divergent and significant concerns. As previously stated (paragraph 129), we envisage that mechanisms will be required in order to allow for truly effective post-release monitoring and tracking of new genetic material promoted via gene drives.

158.Despite a number of ethical and safety concerns being highlighted to us, we heard no suggestion that these concerns are so great that the use of GM insect technology should not be explored. We recognise, however, and wish to emphasise, that as these technologies develop, consideration of the ethical and safety concerns that surround GM insect technologies will be vital in order to inspire and maintain public confidence. Furthermore, we wish to emphasise that while consideration of the scientific evidence is clearly crucial, we recognise that cultural, historic and economic experience is also relevant and must be considered.

159.Public attitudes towards GM insects will likely differ depending on the proposed use of the technology. We heard that the public may be more welcoming of new strategies to ameliorate threats to health than those that will serve to improve agricultural practices.130 This may be linked to a perception of the likely beneficiary of the technology; where the benefits are generally seen to be for the producer and not so much for the consumer there may be less support. Professor Sue Hartley, President Elect of the British Ecological Society (BES), elaborated:

“With agriculture, people fail to see why we need to do this kind of tinkering: the crops are in the fields, the food is in the shops. For medical needs, people can see that this is appropriate, can benefit them and will lead to some real advances that might not have been possible by other techniques.”131

Dr Sarah Hartley confirmed the agriculture versus public health application dichotomy:

“In an agricultural context, it is going to be much harder, not just on the back of the GM crops crisis but in general … we will have to approach agriculture in a different way from health.”132

160.As Dr Sarah Hartley pointed out, the potential lack of public support for agricultural applications may be influenced by the GM crops debate. Much of this debate was hinged on the influence of large multinational companies and the perception of immoral financial drivers. We heard the view from the Pirbright Institute that:

“a major aspect of public concern about the use of GM products relates to concern about the extent to which such technologies facilitate unethical practices by large corporations.”133

161.While the potential public health and agricultural applications of GM insect technologies are equally important, we appreciate that the debates are different and that separate strategies should be developed for each when engaging with the public.

Public engagement: what, when and with whom

162.The objective of a public engagement initiative must be clear from the outset. Sciencewise suggested that:

“it should be clear if the primary purpose of engagement is simply to inform the public about decisions with little room for influence over policy, or whether it is to seek the public’s views as an input into decision making.”134

163.As the development of GM insect technologies is in its infancy, there is potential for early, and sustained, interaction with the public and prevention of an ill-informed, misleading debate. There is scope to enable the public to contribute to the direction of development and regulation of these technologies. Professor Sue Hartley emphasised to us that public engagement should look beyond the science of GM insect technologies:

“It is important to recognise that the public can engage very effectively, even though they may not understand the science fully, because there are still the wider cultural, socioeconomic and value criteria that the public can engage with.”135

164.Rather than focusing on the GM insect technologies themselves, it will be important to frame a public engagement initiative around the wider problems that the technologies have been designed to address. Such an approach would naturally separate public health and agricultural applications. On such a consideration of GM insects in context, we heard from Sir Roland Jackson:

“The message from all the public dialogues around these contentious issues is: start with the problem that is of public interest. You may well find that GM technologies offer one solution or a set of solutions to that, but look at them in context.”136

165.An open, honest and transparent approach is the best means to develop productive and meaningful engagement. Professor Sue Hartley said that: “one key factor is identifying an honest broker. That, I think, is what the public want to see.”137

166.One potential candidate for such a role may be Sciencewise.138 In their written submission to us, they outlined that their expertise is in public dialogue, which is:

“a particular type of public engagement which brings together members of the public, policy makers, scientists and other expert stakeholders to deliberate and come to conclusions on public policy issues. Well-designed public dialogue allows public participants (usually representative of the public at large) to move relatively quickly from little or no knowledge of, or opinions on, a topic to understanding the key issues of even complex scientific and technological developments and come to a view.139

167.We consider GM insect technologies an appropriate topic for public dialogue due to both their complexity and potential for controversy.

168.In terms of timing, not all the evidence we received suggested that a process of early public engagement is appropriate. In specific reference to public engagement on GM insect technologies, George Eustice MP did not necessarily see the case for early-stage intervention but rather thought that public dialogue should be framed around a future application:

“I am not sure that there is a case for a big national debate until there is something that we are willing or able to start bringing forward and consider commercialising.”140

This is a difficult judgment to make. If the debate is not started at a sufficiently early stage, then there is the risk that uninformed, polarised views may become entrenched before the debate has barely begun. Clearly, however, people may think it curious to be asked to participate in a debate about technological developments and resulting opportunities which do not feel at least reasonably imminent.

169.We have focused thus far on public engagement in the UK. However the immediate beneficiaries from GM insect technologies, particularly in terms of public health, are likely to reside outside the UK and the EU. Clearly engagement will be vital in countries where there is a greater pressing need for GM insect technologies, particularly in areas where insect-borne disease is rife. We determine that it is vital that any overseas contained and/or field trials are accompanied by appropriate public engagement.

170.We envisage that appropriate public engagement strategies will have a critical role to play in the development and progression of GM insect technologies. Engagement with the public, both in the UK and overseas, particularly in countries where insect-borne disease is rife, will be required. It is vital that the evolution of an inflamed debate like that which has enveloped GM crop technologies in the UK and across the EU is avoided.

171.The nature of an engagement initiative and its framing is vitally important. Setting GM insect technologies in the context of the issues and problems they are designed to address is crucial. We envisage that a public dialogue approach would be most appropriate.

172.While we recognise the value in early-stage intervention, we are concerned that undertaking a large scale public dialogue in the UK when an application for a GM insect trial is not in train—either at a national or EU level—may prevent the full impact of such an exercise being achieved.

173.We therefore recommend that a concomitant public dialogue exercise be a component of the UK-based GM insect trial we advocate in Chapter 4. This exercise should be framed around the context of the technologies and separate the public health uses of GM insects from agricultural applications. It should also allow for public input into the process of the trial and regulatory exploration. The Government should draw on the expertise of a suitably qualified organisation in order to develop this initiative.

174.Furthermore, as a long-term aim, we recommend that the Government, via a suitably qualified organisation, monitors the development of GM insect technologies and acts to initiate a broad programme of public dialogue when these technologies are deemed to be nearer to commercialisation.

123 Q 17 (Sir Roland Jackson)

124 Q 18 (Sir Roland Jackson)

125 Written evidence from Dr Sarah Hartley (GMI0023)

126 Q 64 (Matt Shardlow)

127 For a comprehensive review of the GM crop debate see the recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: Regulation, risk and precaution (Fifth Report, Session 2014–15, HC 328)

128 Dr Jack Stilgoe, A tale of two trials (4 September 2015): [accessed 9 December 2015]

129 Q 49 (Prof Paul Eggleston)

130 In this context, it is worth noting that insulin has been made for some time using genetically engineered microbes, causing barely registrable public anxiety.

131 Q 20 (Prof Sue Hartley)

132 Q 20 (Dr Sarah Hartley)

133 Written evidence from The Pirbright Institute (GMI0019)

134 Written evidence from Sciencewise (GMI0005)

135 Q 19 (Prof Sue Hartley)

136 Q 22 (Sir Roland Jackson)

137 23 (Prof Sue Hartley)

138 Sciencewise is the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues. It is a BIS funded programme to improve Government policy making involving science and technology by increasing the effectiveness with which public dialogue is used, and encouraging its wider use where appropriate.

139 Written evidence received from Sciencewise (GMI0005)

140 Q 84 (George Eustice MP)

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