Rumours have been circulating for the past few weeks that a "bigwig" was about to pop up and express some doubts about GM crops. Yesterday, just 24 hours ahead of the announcement of the details of the UK Government's "public consultation" process on the commercialisation of GM crops (see below), up popped the Scientific advisor to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Howard Dalton, to express some concerns (see final item below).
In terms of a government so steadfastly committed to GM crops, this might of course seem encouraging as Dalton is himself to play a role in the "public consultation" process. Yet two of the UK's most conservative publications, the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, reported earlier this month that a Government minister had informed them that the "public consultation" process is in reality a "PR offensive": "They're calling it a consultation but don't be in any doubt," he was quoted as saying, "the decision is already taken". The papers described the "consultation" as "a three-pronged campaign to win public opinion over to the idea that genetically modified crops should be grown commercially in Britain." [Public consultation on GM crops 'just PR', Financial Times, July 8 2002 http://ngin.tripod.com/090702a.htm ; Blair to head GM campaign, Daily Telegraph, July 9, 2002, http://ngin.tripod.com/090702c.htm]
As part of that campaign, the Government is to issue two reports. One will be by a 3-man team that includes Dalton alongside the Government's pro-nukes, pro-GM chief scientific advisor and the chairman of the Food Standards Agency - someone who has previously dismissed concerns over GM as "shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven".
The other report will be produced by Downing Street's performance and innovation unit, led by Lord Sainsbury, a GM enthusiast with a multi-million pound stake in biotechnology.
So if today's announcements are greeted with a certain cynicism, the government really shouldn't be too surprised. After all, even Howard Dalton's concerns are something which, from what he has said (see the final item below), he would expect only to modestly delay GM crop commercialisation -- "a couple of months - maybe six months or whatever". He also frames addressing public concerns thus, "If it means at the end of the day that the British Public are going to be happier - and there's going to be more acceptance of it - then I'm sure that industry will be delighted to know that." (interview with Pallab Ghosh - BBC Science - 25 July 2002)
multiple items follow:
10 Downing Street Announcement
Public choose issues for GM debate
A public debate on GM issues will start in the autumn. It is the government's intention to create a dialogue between all strands of opinion on GM.....
Britain to launch debate on gene-modified foods
July 26, 2002
LONDON, - Britain will launch a public debate on genetically modified crops in September, designed to help deepen public understanding of the controversial technology where views have become polarised and entrenched.
Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett was quoted as saying, "Government intends that there will be three main components to the overall programme of dialogue: a public debate overseen by an independent steering board, and other strands looking at the economics and science of GM."
Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission which recommended a public airing, will chair the steering board. He will appoint other members from interested groups. The report on the debate is expected in June 2003.
Public debate to be held on GM crops
By Amanda Brown, Environment Correspondent, PA News
The Government today announced a public debate over the issues surrounding genetically modified crops.
The debate, which will begin in the autumn, was announced by Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett who said the intention was to create a dialogue between all strands of opinion on GM.
"The Government wants a genuinely open and balanced discussion on GM. There is clearly a wide range of views on this issue and we want to ensure all voices are heard, said Mrs Beckett.
The Government shared the view of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission that the public debate will help deepen public understanding of all the issues surrounding GM.
Mrs Beckett added: "If there are gaps and uncertainties in knowledge these need to be ascertained, acknowledged and addressed.
"The Government wants to provide people with the opportunity to debate the issues openly and reach their own judgments."
Adrian Bebb, GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "This debate will be pretty pointless unless the Government makes it clear that they will not allow GM crops to be grown in the UK if the public opposes their commercial development.
"People have already rejected GM food. That is why food companies have all gone GM-free.
"We don't need discussion, we need action. The Government must start listening.
"If GM crops were commercially grown in the UK it would lead to widespread GM contamination of conventional and organic crops, honey and plants in the wider environment.
"Why risk this when there is clearly no market for GM food in the UK?"
FoE said Government research had concluded that contamination of organic and conventional crops would be "inevitable" if GM commercialisation went ahead.
In 2000, FoE research found GM pollen in beehives almost two miles from the nearest GM crops.
Public dialogue on GM: Government response to AEBC advice submitted in April 2002
The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) submitted advice to Government on 26 April on the conduct of a public debate about GM issues. Government is grateful for this advice.
Government announced on 31 May that it welcomed AEBC's advice that it should encourage public discussion and examination of GM issues.
Government said that there should be a full and informed debate. Government also announced two related pieces of work on economics and science.
Government has an open mind on GM issues. It is committed to genuine, balanced discussion, and also to listening to what people say. It agrees that in order for the discussion to be a success it needs to be run on the basis of independence, openness and integrity. It looks to the AEBC, which has established a reputation for the independence of its judgement and the transparency of its processes, to continue to play a major role in securing these objectives.
Government intends that there will be three main components to the overall programme of dialogue: a public debate overseen by an independent steering board, and other strands looking at the economics and science of GM. The intention is to create a dialogue between all strands of opinion on GM issues, in the light of the fullest available factual information,. There will therefore be throughout a two-way interaction between the three components. Outputs from both the science and economics components will feed into the public debate. Equally, issues emerging from the public debate should help frame the direction of the technical work. It is envisaged that each component will have its own management arrangements and independent advisers. They will work closely together to ensure a coherent debate overall. The three strands will report to, and be brought together by, Ministers. Further work may be commissioned as seems necessary.
Terms of reference for dialogue
Government shares AEBC's analysis that the public debate will help to deepen public understanding of the issues surrounding GM, and will be an important example of public participation in discussion of scientific issues.
Government specifies the following terms of reference for the overall programme:
To identify, using methods which focus on grass roots opinion, the questions which the public has about GM issues, avoiding as far as possible the polarisation that has characterised so much of the discussion to date, and getting to the heart of the issues;
To develop, from this framing of the issues and through a wholly open process, the provision of comprehensive evidence-based information to the public on scientific, economic and other aspects of GM;
To provide people with the opportunity to debate the issues openly and to reach their own informed judgements on this subject;
To provide information to government on how questions raised by the public have shaped the course of the debate, including on the scientific, economic and other aspects of GM.
The Public Debate
Government fully supports AEBC's wish to involve as many people as practicable in the dialogue, in ways that capture their attention. Government endorses the broad approach in the programme proposed by AEBC. Government sees this as bold and innovative. Government has taken professional advice on the programme from COI communications, the Government's executive agency for communications procurement. Government is making this advice available to the chair of the AEBC.
Government will assign a budget of £250,000 for the programme. This budget will be linked to objectives, with targets built in to measure effectiveness. Government will wish to be satisfied that the programme will provide value for public money.
Although the primary focus of the dialogue will be to reach and engage the general public, the Government hopes that stakeholder bodies will also participate. The Government attaches importance to the need for full involvement in the dialogue and urges all interested organisations to participate.
Government wants to ensure a clear separation between this overall dialogue and the much later decision-making process on the very specific issue of possible commercialisation of particular GM crops. That process will be based on an objective assessment of all the available evidence including the Farm Scale Evaluations, other scientific evidence and information about the costs and benefits to the UK. Government looks forward to the submission of a report in June 2003 on the Government financed part of the dialogue.
Management of the Public Debate
Government accepts the AEBC recommendation for a steering board, independent of Government, to oversee the public debate.
Government is pleased to accept AEBC's offer of willingness to contribute to membership of the steering board and in particular their proposal that the AEBC chair, Professor Malcolm Grant, should chair the steering board. AEBC has advised that the board should consist of a few AEBC members and one or two other individuals with particular expertise in running programmes of this sort. Government endorses this advice. We invite Malcolm Grant to appoint other members. In appointing members, we anticipate that he will have regard to the need to maintain diversity and to have a balance of views and perspectives. The board might include members drawn from the NGO community, the biotechnology industry, the health professions and consumers' organisations, as well as individuals involved in the scientific and economic research. Board members may be from AEBC or from elsewhere. As foreseen in the AEBC advice Government intends that there will be Government representation, at official level, on the steering board. This will be to ensure financial accountability and efficient running of the programme. Government will appoint a project manager for the programme. The project manager will advise the steering board on the appointment of contractors for each element of the project. Government invites the steering board to consider COI's advice in developing the programme. Government wishes to invite the steering board to take responsibility for supervising progress in delivering the programme. The chair of the steering board will report on progress to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Government accepts AEBC's advice that an evaluation group should be appointed to produce a report. We invite the steering board to assume responsibility for this group, which needs to be appointed as soon as possible.
Government notes the advice that there would be value in forming a separate group, at an early stage, to assess the process for stimulating a debate with the aim of testing its applicability to other areas of public policy.
We invite the AEBC also to pursue this aspect.
Other Elements of the Dialogue
Alongside this response the Government is announcing at the same time the launch of the economics study by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. The study will consider the costs and benefits of GM crops, including their effect on conventional and organic farming interests. It will consider the implications for developing countries of growing GM crops. In due course, the Unit will post on its web-site its scoping study for the project. It will start in September. The study will be an open process, with submissions invited and all stages published on the web. The study is likely to report early in 2003.
The science component will review the scientific issues relating to GM, including the work recommended in AEBC's report 'Crops on Trial'. It will include an assessment of the current state of scientific knowledge on GM issues, focusing on public concerns about the potential risks to human health or the environment from GM crops and food. The assessment will be undertaken by the Government's and DEFRA's Chief Scientific Advisers with independent advice from the Food Standards Agency. It will draw on all available expert and scientific advice.
The Government will also be publishing soon further information on the science component of the dialogue. There will be an open review of the science. It will begin with concerns already identified from public meetings and correspondence and will encompass other issues as they are identified in the public debate. Work in progress will be published on the website and meetings will be held in public. We are committed to an independent, comprehensive and transparent process. We are discussing the scope of the review with AEBC.
The steering board for the public debate will receive regular reports on the work of the science and economics work streams. Government will seek the views of the steering board on the ways in which the three components are interacting.
25 July 2002
Q&A: GM and politics
BBC News [science/nature]
Friday, 26 July, 2002, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
More research is needed before widespread commercial production of GM crops is allowed in Britain, a senior government scientist has warned. Professor Howard Dalton, the chief scientist in the environment ministry (Defra), told our correspondent Pallab Ghosh of his concerns about the impact of GM on the countryside.
HD: If you have the techniques and ability to put an oak tree gene into a wheat plant - which we do have - we don't know what the problems might be - and that's what I'm concerned about - and that's my worry - and that's why we're doing these experiments to get to the bottom of this.
PG: Describe the consultation process that government has decided to embark on.
HD: Before we put GM crops on to the market, we should engage in a public debate about the implications of what we're trying to do.
GM crops 'need more research'
This was heralded by the secretary of state on 29 May when she explained it was going to be instigated by myself, David King (the UK Government's chief scientific advisor) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), to try to bring into the public domain the wider scientific issues as well as the socio-economics of the use of gm crops. I'm very concerned that there are a lot of people out there without the facts and information at their fingertips.
PG: Is it going to be a one way street?
HD: It won't be a one way street - the whole point about it is that we want to engage with as many people as possible - particularly the public; a variety of different stakeholders: scientists - both academic and government - and also industry as well. We will engage with everyone. And once we've got that information together then people will be in a position to evaluate it themselves and make up their own minds. We're very keen to involve a variety of public groups: Greenpeace, FoE, the Soil Association, Monsanto/Syngenta - all these people will be part of the process.
PG: What's the end point of this process?
HD: Hopefully at the end of this process people will be clearer as to what the issues are - and we in government will be in a position to decide where we want to take it. At the end of the day, we are talking about the possibility of commercialising GM crops - we need to be able to get a lot of information on that - that's why the farm-scale trails are going on. We're adopting a seriously precautionary approach to all of this.
PG: Was part of the reason for having this debate that the technology was being pursued just for the benefit of industry?
HD: I think there has been that perception. I think you have to realise that GM crops are nothing new - they have been produced in the US and Canada for eight years - there're 52 million hectares of land under cultivation with GM crops. We are importing GM soya that's incorporated into food products in the UK.
There's an awful lot of history here - but there's an awful lot of concern in the public and a variety of pressure groups and the media which is saying, "hold on here, we're not going to do this exactly in the same way as America. Let's take a more careful approach". And this is precisely what we are doing.
PG: Gene flow - what are your worries?
HD: We've been doing conventional plant breeding for thousands of years. Many thousands of genes are being transferred from one compatible plant to another all the time. When we are looking at GM, it's a slightly different issue. We are putting exotic genetic material from one organism into another which would not have happened under normal circumstances. So my concern is that we are moving specific, often just one gene at a time, as opposed to the many thousands that you do with normal plant breeding. What we don't know are the implications of what that one foreign gene might have on other proteins in the recipient plant material. So we're adopting a precautionary approach to see what these problems might be. We are engaging with the FSA. They are looking at many of these modified plants to see if they are toxic or dangerous. So far, the data indicates that they aren't.
PG: There had been an expectation that commercialisation would follow the farm-scale trials. Is there a possibility now that concerns about gene flow will delay things further.
HD: We know an awful lot about gene flow. What we're trying to determine is the extent to which it might be trying to disrupt the environment and also affect food quality. But we are currently doing experiments to understand precisely the problems associated with gene flow in relation to GM crops. Once we get all the information to do with gene flow and once we get the results of the farm-scale trails, we'll be in a much better position to know whether there are any problems and I don't want to prejudge that.
PG: Do you believe that by this time next year you'll have all the questions in your mind answered?
HD: We'll have a lot of them answered - I can't be drawn to say we'll have them all answered. It's not just the UK doing experiments in this area. From one experiment in Australia, there can be pollination 3-5 km away. The assimilation of genes - we know there is some gene flow - is amazingly low. It is something like 0.03%. And these experiments are being done in other countries and they are extremely useful.
PG: There is then a possibility that there could be a further delay in the commercialisation of GM crops?
HD: I really can't say. What were trying to do is get as much information as we can? But I think we'll be pretty close to having a much better answer.
PG: As you know, three years ago some of the biotech companies were pretty annoyed at having to wait to demonstrate something they felt they knew already - namely that GM crops didn't harm the environment. Now, if there's a further delay over gene flow, you risk annoying them further. Doesn't that worry you?
HD: If it means at the end of the day that the British public are going to be happier - and there's going to be more acceptance of it - then I'm sure that industry will be delighted to know that. They are as concerned as anyone else to ensure that the products they are producing are perfectly safe. If there's an extra delay of a couple of months - maybe six months or whatever - of course they'll be frustrated. But at the end of the day, it needs to be done and we have to do it. And we have a responsibility to ensure the experiments are done properly and the results are available for everyone to see.
PG: So you are going to review the research that's being done, commission a few extra bits and pieces if you feel the need to do so, and then when you've got it all in you'll evaluate it and pass on your advice?
HD: Absolutely. We've actually commissioned quite a number of studies in this area so we're getting to a stage where most of these results should be in quite soon. And most of those results should be in before the end of the farm-scale evaluations are in. So, we should be in a position by the time the farm-scale evaluations come out to understand quite a lot more about gene flow.