Survey shows people aren't fooled by the promises of the deregulation lobby
The Rathenau Institute, a technology assessment organisation in the Netherlands that is a member of the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment, has published a report about the perception of Dutch citizens on new GM techniques (NGTs), as revealed in a survey it conducted.
The findings include:
* In general, citizens' views converged towards reservation and hesitation about the use of NGTs and genetic modification in crops. Citizens raised doubts mainly about the plausibility that these crops will contribute meaningfully to the solving of our current societal challenges in the food system, and whether they are indeed the right approach for dealing with these challenges. They wondered if alternative solutions may be better, and how these may come with less unforeseen, long-term risks for human health and ecosystems (p. 5).
* Citizens in the survey were unanimous in their view that regulation of NGT crops is necessary for diverse reasons: To prevent harms to the environment and human health, to give consumers freedom of choice, to guard against the potential of the technology to increase inequalities, and to ensure that the technology is directed towards contributing to solutions to societal problems. The latter is viewed as an important pre-condition for the introduction of NGT products onto the marketplace (p. 5).
* According to citizens, NGTs should not be developed purely for commercial motives driven by the logic of the market. There needs to be a clear societal purpose for their introduction. In terms of policy, this would necessitate a case-by-case assessment of NGT crops for broader considerations, such as purpose and value to society (p. 5-6).
* The citizens in focus groups emphasised the need for freedom of choice for citizens, and conclude that the labelling of NGT products is required: "If the EC [European Commission] were to exempt NGTs from the GMO Directive, citizens would not be given the freedom of choice not to buy NGT foods, nor would there be a free market, as citizens cannot express their preferences through purchasing behaviour."
In a reflective comment that policymakers and regulators around the world would do well to take note of, the authors of the report wrote, "It is often said that you cannot discuss these kinds of complicated subjects with citizens, that it is simply not possible to research people's opinions about issues they know little about. Indeed, a questionnaire with a representative sample of Dutch people will reveal very little of genuine use for policymakers. But our research shows that citizens are capable of forming a well-founded opinion about complicated topics. You approach the issue with care and talk to citizens in small groups, giving them explanations and information and space to develop their views and perspectives. This empowers them to work out what they think in conversation with each other. Through these dialogues with different groups, you gain insight into what society may think about a subject about which there is currently little discussion, but about which it may soon crackle." (While "crackle" in this context is not standard English usage, it's descriptive of the sudden sharp noises caused by a burning fire and therefore seems apt.)
In GMWatch's view, the report's findings are especially noteworthy for three main reasons:
* They come from an institute and a citizen sample that isn't obviously biased in favour of or against GMOs, and from a country (the Netherlands) that is traditionally pro-technology and has an active lobby in favour of the deregulation of new GMOs.
* Even though there was presumably every opportunity for the participant citizens to be regaled with promises about the supposed capabilities of new GMOs, they still came out clearly in favour of stringent regulation and GMO labelling.
* The participant citizens show a healthy scepticism towards the promises of the GMO deregulation lobby and wanted to know about alternative solutions to the challenges facing the food system.
The European Commission, which seems hell bent on deregulation, should learn from these responses.