The last Conservative government was well on its way out by the time the GM debate of the late 1990s really kicked off, replaced by New Labour’s rhetoric of dialogue and consultation, which neatly ran alongside Prime Ministerial frustration that the debate was ill-informed. . In 2003, the government commissioned ‘GM Nation?’, a large-scale, but methodologically problematic and rushed public consultation that ran alongside a review of the economic and scientific evidence. It failed to achieve any significant impact on policy, and left all involved feeling somewhat frustrated. Last year, the FSA was commissioned to conduct a second public consultation on the risks and benefits of GM. It has been plagued with problems from the start – both Helen Wallace of Genewatch and Brian Wynne stood down from the steering board, protesting against its narrow terms of reference. Yesterday it was scrapped by David Willetts:
“I’m announcing today that the GM dialogue project will not continue in its current format. However, it’s vital to engage people of all ages on scientific issues, so that they have a real say about developments which can affect all of us.
“Instead we are taking this valuable opportunity to step back and review past dialogues on GM and other areas of science to ensure we understand how best to engage the public over such issues.”
The details of the Government’s policy on the use of GM technology in food and agriculture are still being determined, but all policies will be based on robust evidence. Developing effective and appropriate public engagement will need to be an element of this.”
So, once again the GM debate rumbles on and the ‘appropriate’ role of the ‘public’ in making science and technology policy continues to be contested. What would constitute ‘a real say’? How will this sit with ‘robust evidence’? And what will/could this be evidence of? Of the best means of public engagement? Or incorporating public concerns/desires? Or of environmental and health science? And, how will this work out within the coalition – will the Lib Dems stand up for public engagement, or will we go with the scientific review? The LibDem manifesto was keen for a public debate, but they’ve historically opposed GM, while the Conservatives stated they would let GM crops go ahead when they are “safe for people and the environment” – which sounds very reasonable, but would be impossible to prove, as the last decade of debate has aptly demonstrated.