GM: a not-so-great debate?

What can we learn from previous cases where a technology has faced widespread public criticism?

Food from plants that had been genetically modified (GM) first appeared on UK supermarket shelves in 1996. There were few objections. Cans of GM tomato paste were clearly labelled, and shoppers could easily buy the old-fashioned kind instead.

A public and media outcry over GM foods emerged a few years later because of new fears of possible hazards and because GM soya and maize had found their way, unlabelled, into many processed products.

To gauge public opinion, the UK Government launched ‘GM Nation?’, a public debate, in the summer of 2003. It was a large-scale effort intended to involve the public in discussions about GM agriculture.

More than 600 meetings were held around the country. Those who took part proved overwhelmingly opposed to allowing GM crops to be grown in the UK. But people who were already strongly against the technology made a special effort to attend the meetings. It’s debatable whether GM Nation? truly captured the voice of ordinary people.

The Government was criticised for ‘not listening when the public spoke’. But it was also attempting to weigh up inputs from other groups, and the detailed analysis from scientific and economic experts. With complex issues and incomplete knowledge, reaching decisions is going to be difficult – and pleasing everyone impossible.

So is there any point in involving the public in such discussions? One conclusion from the GM experience is that access to the ‘political ear’ seemed to be biased at early stages – industry seemed to be dictating the agenda and the Government was failing in its duty to look after the public. A lesson for nanotechnology, then, may be that the world outside the lab should have a say in where nano is going sooner, rather than later.

Lead image:

BASF – The Chemical Company/Flickr CC BY NC ND

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Ecology and environment, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development