One of the most high profile cases is the UK, where the government conducted a nationwide survey of attitudes to transgenic products last year. The results of the GM Nation? debate showed that the British public were overwhelmingly against the government's apparent intention to grant approval for the commercialisation of GM products in the UK, but a new report out today suggests that this assessment may not be wholly accurate.
The report was prepared by a team of independent researchers from Cardiff University, the University of East Anglia and the Institute of Food Research who were given behind-the-scenes access to the planning and implementation of the debate. They suggest that while GM Nation? was both innovative and an important experiment in public engagement, it also failed to fully meet its potential and, crucially, conveyed an overestimate of the strength of anti-GM feeling in the UK.
Tom Horlick-Jones of Cardiff University, team leader of the evaluation project, said: "We spent 12 months gathering data on virtually every aspect of the debate. Our report tells a story of successes and failures. We recognise that the debate was an enormously important experiment, from the point of view of extending and enriching the democratic process, but this is just the start. Now is the time to start to learn the lessons on how to do this sort of thing more effectively."
He added: "The devil really is in the detail here. It's no good announcing a public debate, setting up a board to oversee it, and then to throw money at it. These things need careful design, they need not to be rushed, and they probably need a little more money - but that money has to be well spent."
But assessing the way in which the debate could have been handled more effectively was only one part of the study's remit. The researchers also wanted to see whether the conclusions taken from the GM Nation? debate were a truly accurate reflection of British consumer sentiment.
In order to do this, the evaluation team commissioned its own public opinion survey, conducted by research company MORI directly after the end of the formal GM Nation? public debate (i.e. between 19 July and 12 September 2003).
The findings were extremely revealing. Overall opposition to GM food was found to be 36 per cent against, while 13 per cent said they supported genetic modification. More importantly, about two in five neither supported nor opposed GM food, showing that the GM Nation? debate had clearly failed to make much of an impact on the vast majority of 'flaoting voters'.
The survey also showed that 85 per cent of Britons believe that not enough is yet known about the potential long-term effects of GM food on our health for any decision to be made at the current time, but there was a surprisingly open attitude to the potential benefits that genetic modification could bring, with 44 per cent seeing advantages for the environment, 45 per cent seeing benefits to consumers and 56 per cent believing that GM crops could help those in developing countries.
There were also very high levels of agreement (79 per cent) that organisations separate from government are needed to regulate GM food.
Professor Nick Pidgeon of the University of East Anglia, director of the research consortium that carried out the evaluation work, said: "Despite many of the problems that GM Nation? faced, the results of our survey broadly mirror a number of the key conclusions of the debate Steering Board, particularly regarding the widespread levels of concern across Britain about the risks of this technology and the need for independent regulation of the technology.
"However, our results also show that the extent of outright opposition to GM food and crops amongst the British population is probably lower than indicated in many of the GM Nation? findings."