An attendee at the UK government's first 'public debate' on GM food came away none the wiser.
Tuesday morning, 3 June 2003. I woke to the sound of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and vaguely absorbed the fact that the NEC, Birmingham, had been mentioned.
Sad person that I am, my ears always prick up at the mention of the letters N..E..C (one particularly atrocious Depeche Mode concert, circa 1990 – together with countless machine tool trade exhibitions from a previous life). This Today piece was something about a debate on genetically modified (GM) foods. First of a series…consulting the public…your chance to speak. As I live in Coventry, the NEC is only 10 minutes away by train; and since I’m now a (rather mature) student, why not?
I should perhaps lay my cards on the table at this point. I’m actually neither ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ GM – just as I’m neither ‘anti’ hand-driven machine tools or ‘pro’ computer controlled ones. All of these technologies make sense at a given time and place. My level of interest as to whether GM material exists in the environment or in my stomach comes somewhere between the questions of who is seventeenth in line for the British throne and how long the Great Wall of China actually is.
I do, however, have a strong interest as to why people should so strongly oppose GM, or other new technologies; so I was attracted by the notion of a lively public debate.
First one practical problem: how to find the details of this debate? I recalled the term GM Nation being mentioned, and low and behold, Google returns www.gmnation.org. The ‘Get Involved’ section says: ‘The public debate is being launched with meetings in Birmingham, Swansea, Taunton, Belfast, Glasgow and Harrogate.’ But when?
GeneWatch (www.genewatch.org) informed me that the Birmingham debate will happen at 3:00pm. Genewatch is a ‘public interest group which aims to ensure that genetic technologies are developed and used in the public interest’. (It then helpfully defines what the ‘public interest’ is: ‘Such technologies must therefore only be used in a way which promotes human health, protects the environment and respects human rights and the interests of animals’.)
I arrived at 2:30pm, to find about 20 people milling around in the meeting room. Immediately I was accosted by a pleasant middle-aged lady, who gave me some information on public water fluoridation and asked me to sign her petition against it. Not ever having really considered the pros and cons of fluoridation, but believing it to be probably a pretty good idea, I refused. I’ve not had that kind of a look directed at me from a person of that age since I was caught nicking the teacher’s sweets at the age of six.
Attempting to find someone who looked like they may be organising the event, I asked one of the NEC ‘hostesses’ (if that’s the right word), who appeared to be guarding a door. She asked if I had booked as a delegate. When I told her that I only heard about it that morning, she said that I could sit at the back, but that if the event filled up with ‘delegates’ I might have to give up my place.
I was expecting some kind of lecture theatre; but this was a large room arranged as if an award ceremony was going to take place, with circular tables covered by white table-cloths. On a projection screen at the front, a video introduction showed a woman express her concerns about ‘not knowing enough facts about GM’ and her fears about ‘pumping this stuff into our kids’. (Oh, the images!)
This was followed by a representative of the Soil Association (1) worrying about GM (‘look at what happened with DDT…’), and being responded to by two sheepishly defensive ‘experts’. I was rather hoping that they would spell out the enormous benefits of DDT (2), but they simply rehashed the arguments about feeding the third world.
The room gradually filled to about two-thirds capacity, and a man called Adrian addressed us from the front of the room. It became clear that the debate was going to consist of a series of workshops based around the groups of people on each table. We were given a set of statements such as ‘Is altering genetic makeup safe?’, together with a set of ‘views for’ and ‘views against’.
Adrian told us that, up until now, the debate has been polarised – so for this debate there would be no ‘experts’ up front, and we were to discuss the statements ourselves. He also told us that ‘The results will be fed into a report to the Secretary of State (she will respond!)’, and ‘the idea is to raise awareness, and exchange views, and to overcome the view of apathy that exists’. This was followed by some simple one-line answers to questions like: ‘What is GM?’ (answer: moving genetic material from one organism to another); and ‘Does GM work?’ (tricky one that, since some opponents say that we don’t look at the wider – presumably social – picture).
On my table, we introduced ourselves. Apart from myself, there were three people from what can loosely be called biotech companies, one PhD student studying the ‘process’ of how the government is handling the ‘genetics’ debate, a journalist from a farming magazine and, saving the day, a sweet old lady whose name escapes me but was something like Millicent. Millicent was anti pretty much everything that modern science and engineering had conjured up (GM, ‘Western’ medicine, nuclear power and – yes – fluoridation).
Millicent explained how you cannot tell what is in food nowadays, and that she had been feeling ill for ages because of it. Expecting to hear a story of how homeopathic medicine had come to the rescue after having tried several diets suggested by her (Western) doctor, she stunned us all in to explaining that she started to feel a lot better after she gave up smoking. Our main source of debating material lost, the discussion degenerated into the finer points of Bt-corn.
At the end of the day, after two hours of ‘debate’, it emerged that what people wanted was that nebulous old chestnut, ‘freedom of choice’. GM foods will reduce choice, apparently, and organic farmers must have the right not to be ‘contaminated’ by GM crops. The ‘antis’ seemed far more vocal, and the occasional ‘pros’ hesitant in their arguments (or should I say ‘in their opinions and the expression of their values’, to stay in keeping with the event).
A show of hands indicated that at least 40 percent of the attendants admitted to being representatives of some ‘body’ or other (and no doubt some members of campaign groups were travelling incognito). The corporate representatives only seemed to be there to listen or agree with each other, not to give a strong promotion of GM technologies.
The final two discussions focused on the question of whether GM food should be labelled as such, and attempted to distil the reasons why we should allow GM crops to be grown (while giving a handy list of arguments as to why labelling should occur and how GM reduces choice). This whiffed of a government searching for policy arguments from supposed members of the public, instead of putting forward its own arguments.
The only small ray of sunshine was the fact that most people attending did actually want to hear experts from ‘both sides’ speak, and allow a proper debate to occur. Maybe the government should let others organise the debates in future, and just come long when (and if) it is invited.
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