Good to know the US embassy's contributing but shame they didn't have their GM Information Minister there: http://www.ngin.org.uk/comical_ali_animated.gif
1.Tense but informed start to national debate on GM crops
2.Consumers Association report on first 'debate'
1.Tense but informed start to national debate on genetically modified crops
By JOHN MASON
Financial Times, June 4, 2003
As debates go it was probably at least as intelligent and informed as the average discussion around Tony Blair's Cabinet table. In tone, it was quite possibly more polite. The national debate on genetically modified crops got off to a tense but civilised start yesterday with the first public meeting at Birmingham's NEC.
Over the next six weeks other regional and local meetings, supplemented by focus groups, will be held as ministers seek insights into public opinion to guide them in the shaping of GM policy.
About 200 members of the public sat around tables exchanging differing views about the controversial technology which might soon be embraced by British and European farmers. One woman, whose purple name badge read Christine, said: "GM is another step on the path to human extinction."
John was worried about the impact GM crops could have on wildlife. If GM crops reduced the number of insects in fields, what would happen to the honeyfinder bird and the honeyfinder badger, he asked.
Not all those in Birmingham were laymen. With the meeting open to anyone, participants included a public relations executive from Monsanto, the US biotech giant, the US agriculture attache to London and Sue Mayer, of Genewatch, the anti-GM pressure group.
Few were quite so obviously partisan, but a representative cross-section of the public, the meeting was not. For two hours the well informed audience tossed around the big questions surrounding GM crops. Are they safe to eat? Can we trust our scientists and politicians? The issues rapidly became profound. How do societies progress? Isn't the real issue the world's growing population?
No firm conclusions were reached. At the end of the session participants filled in questionnaires and went home.
Only when all six regional debates, other meetings and focus groups have been completed will organisers hope to have a "snapshot" of public opinion.
What will it achieve? Malcolm Grant, chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, the GM watchdog which organised the debate, agreed the participants were more informed than were the average member of the public. "With open meetings this is inevitable and we shall have to work harder in future to engage other sections of the public. But this will still give government a valuable sense of public opinion," he insisted.
But the million dollar question remains. Will ministers take any notice of what people think when deciding whether to allow GM crops to be grown in Britain? Professor Grant wants to believe the assurance given by Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, that she will. Voters matter to politicians, he pointed out.
2. GM Nation: Public Debate
3 June 2003
[These are the notes made by Michelle Smythe (Consumers Association) re the Birmingham meeting, via Jean Saunders]
Make-up of audience
l Journalists, scientists, NGOs (Friends of the Earth), organic farmers, Soil Association, conventional farmers, members of GM Nation steering board, biotech companies, officials from US embassy.
l Approximately 60% of audience were made up of representatives from the above groups.
l A mix of age groups was present, though the audience was predominantly of a white ethnic origin.
l Room divided into tables with 8 - 10 participants at each.
l Debate divided into three themes of discussion: Risks & benefits; health, choice, safety implications; future implications of GM. Overall facilitator briefly introduced the theme for discussion. Question papers were then distributed to each table (copy of the material provided on the CD Rom) and the debate commenced. One person from each table was charged with reporting the views of the group in the report back session. Debate would last for 20-25 minutes followed by the report back section where the overall facilitator would invite comments from each table and pull out some key points.
l A transcript is to be circulated of each meeting.
l All participants requested to fill in a GM Nation response form on your personal views of GMOs. (Series of questions where you have to indicate to what extent you agree or disagree with the statement.) Copies of a GM Event Questionnaire also provided. This stems from an independent team of researchers based at the University of East Anglia, Institute of Food Research, Cardiff University and Brunel University who are evaluating the entire GM debate process.
Criticisms of the format
l Concern by participants that the room was not made up of enough 'ordinary' members of the public. How can they be reached and encouraged to participate?
l Preference for experts to have addressed the group in a Q & A style session.
l Forum was a workshop rather than a debate. Question as to where do we go from here?
l General scepticism as to what extent, if any, the government will take the views expressed into account.
l Distinct lack of publicity surrounding the forum. Lack of information as to when and where such meetings are taking place.
l Representatives from local councils were reported to have left the meeting early as it did not offer them any guidance on how to organise and construct local level meetings.
Key points of debate
l Concern that GM denies consumers real choice due to the lack of effective controls. Real worries over the potential for cross-pollination.
l Suspicion over the assertion from biotech companies that GM food can feed the world. World hunger is a political rather than an agricultural problem.
l Importance of precautionary principle.
l No direct benefits to consumers of GM foods. Any perceived benefits clearly do not outweigh the overall risks.
l Concern over the research on GMOs. It was felt that this has been predominantly funded by the biotech companies. Calls for independent research to assess the real benefits.
l Liability: who is responsible if things go wrong? Comments from US representatives that there is no liability insurance for biotech companies in America.
l Labelling of GM foods very important. Consumers need to know what they are eating.
l Debate on the individual tables had the tendency to drift and not focus on the questions set for discussion.
l Need for a facilitator at each table to ensure that overall direction is given to the debate.
l Lack of in-depth knowledge around the table meant that it was difficult to form clear views.
l Room in general comprised of those opposed to GMOs.
l Length of time devoted to each theme not long enough.
l Lack of clarity from the facilitator as to how those views expressed would be presented.
l The only information on how to organise a local debate was a form at the entrance that participants could fill in if they were interested in doing so. COI supposed to follow this up.
l Vast array of literature available at entrance from a number of stakeholder groups. (Copies of CA's 'GM Dilemmas' leaflet on display as requested.)
l Facilitator was fair and did attempt to ensure that views of each table were heard and noted.