Parties interested in forging ahead with GM foodstuffs in the UK have a battle on their hands as the widest public debate ever held in Britain finds an overwhelming percentage of people uneasy, suspicious or hostile to the introduction of genetically modified crops.
Charged with assessing the view of the British people vis a vis the new technology - genetic modification - before a potentially far reaching change in public policy, an independent steering board was set up to organise the debate at arm's length from the UK government. But their findings, published this week, will bring little comfort to those hoping for wider acceptance of GM foodstuffs.
Seven key messages extrapolated from the many debates set up countrywide over the past few months all converge at the same point - the British public is not convinced about genetic modification.
Outlining the essential points, the report claims that firstly, people are generally uneasy about GM.
'They were uneasy not only about issues directly related to GM technology (is GM food safe to eat? What will GM crops do the environment?) but about a range of broader social and political issues. The mood ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection,' writes the steering board.
Secondly, and putting paid to the analogy that 'knowledge overcomes fear', the board found that the more people engage in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns become. ' The more they choose to discover about GM the more convinced they are that no one knows enough about the long-term effects of GM on human health,' said the report's authors.
No GM crops can currently be grown commercially in the UK, and if the government paids heed to the reports findings, it could well stay this way. The board found that there is 'little support for early commercialisation of GM crops' with more than 50 per cent of those involved in the debate saying they never want to see GM crops grown in the United Kingdom under any circumstances. But, the reports authors stressed that their findings suggest the 'general population would prefer caution - GM crop technology should not go ahead without further trials and tests, firm regulation, demonstrated benefits to society (not just for producers) and, above all, clear and trusted answers to unresolved questions about health and the environment'.
That the board found 'widespread mistrust of government and multinational companies' will do little to comfort Downing Street. The cyncial British subject, finds the report, suspects that the UK government has already taken a decision about GM, despite launching the public debate GM Nation?'The debate was only a camouflage and its results would be ignored,' writes the report, highlighting the fact that the public quesiton the motives, intentions and behaviour of those taking decisions about GM - especially government and multi-national companies.
As certain developing countries reject GM food donations because of health and food safety fears, much attention in recent months has been attributed to the moral issue behind donating GM foodstuffs to the developing world.
According to the report, in the context of the developing world opposition to GM was based less on negative feelings towards GM than on the view that there were better and more important ways to promote development, including fairer trade, better distribution of food, income and power, and better government, writes the report.
< i> 'On the issue of benefits to the developing world, people were particularly sceptical about the will of multinational companies to deliver them,' said the authors.
The UK government was largely evasive this week in its response, finding shelter in the fact that it will publish a response once all the strands of the GM dialogue have been completed.
GM Nation? is part of the wider GM dialogue, recommended in the Agriculture andEnvironment Biotechnology Commission's (AEBC) report 'Crops on Trial' published in September 2001. In addition to GM Nation?, the dialogue has two further strands, the GM Science Review and the a study by the government's Strategy Unit looking into the overall costs and benefits of GM crops.
UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett commented this week: "I will reflect carefully on the findings of today's report, along with those of the science review and our costs and benefits study, before publishing our response. We said that we will listen, and wewill."
Time will tell.