25 September 2003

Dear friends and colleagues,


The UK government has just released its report on the public debate on GM that was held nation wide in June 2003 to gauge its citizen’s opinion on the new technology and if they want to allow the commercial growing of GM crops in the country.

We reproduce below the Executive Summary of the report. The full report is available at

With best wishes,

Lim Li Lin and Chee Yoke Heong

Third World Network

121-S Jalan Utama

10450 Penang







REF: Doc.TWN/Biosafety/2003/J


This is the report of the Steering Board of the public debate on GM (genetic  modification) and GM crops. Its structure is described briefly below, but first we present its seven key messages.

Key Messages

It was no part of our intentions in this report to say whether the public were right or wrong about any GM issue, even on matters of fact. With that in mind, we believe that the debate carries seven key messages about public attitudes.

1)People are generally uneasy about GM

Across the different elements of the debate, participants expressed unease 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. Despite the range of expression, among people who chose to take an active part in the debate these attitudes far outweighed any degree of support or enthusiasm for GM. These people expressed strongly the belief that GM technology and GM food carried potential risks and a majority rejected any suggested benefits from GM, except to the companies which promoted it. Such attitudes varied in intensity but they did represent the majority in all sections of the active participants in the debate.

Our analysis of the Narrow-But-Deep element suggests that among this sample of the general population people are less emphatic and less definite in their first response to GM issues. When asked to review their responses to the questions, people readily confirmed that they did not feel that they knew much about GM. Although they have strong anxieties about some risks from GM, particularly towards the environment and human health, they are more willing to accept that GM may offer some benefits. However, their predominant mood is one of uncertainty towards GM. People said that they felt uninformed about GM and in the Narrow-But-Deep discussion groups they often felt unable to express an opinion on particular GM issues. Partly for this reason, they expressed little confidence in their own power to influence decisions about GM.

2)The more people engage in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns

The Narrow-But-Deep sample also suggested that when people in the general population become more engaged in GM issues, and choose to discover more about them, they harden their attitudes to GM. Although they are more willing to accept some potential benefits from GM (especially medical benefits and other advantages for developing countries) they become more doubtful about the others and they express more concern/greater unease about all of the risks most frequently associated with GM. In particular, 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.

3)There is little support for early commercialisation

There is little support for the early commercialisation of GM crops. Among active participants in the debate just over half never want to see GM crops grown in the United Kingdom under any circumstances. Almost all the remainder want at least one new condition to be satisfied before this happens. They seek varying periods of delay so that new information, tests or research can identify and eliminate, or at least reduce to an acceptable level, the potential risks to the environment and human health.

The Narrow-But-Deep sample suggests that the general population does not share the unconditional opposition to GM of many active debate participants. However, it does suggest that 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.

4)There is widespread mistrust of government and multi-national companies

Alongside arguments over the potential risks and benefits of GM itself, both the open debate and the Narrow-But-Deep element also highlighted a series of political issues, manifested in a strong and wide degree of suspicion about the motives, intentions and behaviour of those taking decisions about GM - especially government and multi-national companies. Such suspicion is commonly expressed as a lack of trust. Here, mistrust of government applies both to government in general and in particular and expresses itself through several avenues. One is the suspicion that the government has already taken a decision about GM: the debate was only a camouflage and its results would be ignored. In this way, GM links to a general mistrust of the motives and behaviour of modern governments, a general concern that they have secret agendas, and ignore the public’s views. The GM debate also reflects a weakening of faith in the ability or even the will of any government to defend the interest of the general public. This was supported by the way in which people cited past disasters, especially BSE. They carried a double lesson, first, that government may not have adequate knowledge and advice to help them take the right decisions, and second, that government can be too close to producer interests.

The debate also highlighted unease over the perceived power of the multi-national companies which promote GM technology, and of such companies in general. People believe that these companies are motivated overwhelmingly by profit rather than meeting society’s needs, and that they have the power to make their interests prevail over the wider public interest, both at home and throughout global society. Even when people acknowledge potential benefits of GM technology, they are doubtful that GM companies will actually deliver them. People are suspicious about any information or science which emanates from GM companies, or which is funded by them.

When given the opportunity to engage in GM issues, people do not rely exclusively on official sources or everyday media. They choose sources which they trust and which mean something in their personal life.

5) There is a broad desire to know more and for further research to be done

In all parts of the debate, both from active participants and the Narrow-But-Deep sample, people expressed a very strong wish - almost a longing - to be better informed about GM from sources they could trust. They wish to be able to resolve for themselves the contradictions and disputes, claims and counter-claims, in the existing body of information, science and research on GM issues. They want a corpus of agreed “facts”, accepted by all organisations and interests. They also want confidence in the independence and integrity of information about GM - the assurance that it does not reflect the influence of any group with a special interest for or against GM (including government and business). There was a general feeling that no one knows enough at the moment and that much more research is necessary.

6)Developing countries have special interests

There was a “debate-within-the-debate” on the potential role of GM for developing countries. This was acknowledged as a subject of special interest, to be judged on distinct arguments and values. In all parts of the debate, there was at least an initial assumption that GM technology might help developing countries produce more food and offer them medical, social and economic benefits. There was then a clear divergence between the views of active participants in the debate and those expressed in the Narrow-But-Deep sample. The former rejected, by a majority, the idea that GM technology would benefit developing countries: the latter supported it, and their support slightly increased after people got more engaged in GM issues.

However, 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.

On the issue of benefits to the developing world, people were particularly sceptical about the will of multinational companies to deliver them.

7)The debate was welcomed and valued

Although there was a widespread suspicion that the debate’s results would be ignored by government, people in all parts of the debate were glad that it had happened. People expressed their appreciation for the opportunity not only to express their own views, but to hear those of other people, including experts, to ask questions and acquire new information, and to take part in stimulating discussions. The debate generated a great deal of voluntary activity, which deepened and multiplied as it got under way.

The number of local meetings increased with each week of the debate, involving thousands of people across the country by the end of the process and an estimated total of over 600 meetings. People were inspired not only to organise meetings and debates of their own but to take other personal steps to get engaged in GM issues - first-hand research, getting in touch with their council or their MP, writing a letter or e-mail. In spite of their suspicions of government, people expressed a real hope that their efforts in the debate would influence future policy.

Structure of the report

1)   This is a report on an unprecedented event - a special public debate before a potentially far-reaching change in public policy. It was a chance for the British people to come forward and say what they felt about a new technology - genetic modification (GM) - and the commercial growing of GM crops in this country. Paragraph 1

2)   We describe the origins of the debate (paragraphs 3 - 9), as one of three strands, together with an economic and a science review, of a wider public debate on GM issues. We set out our aims and principles (paragraphs 10 - 11). It shows how we applied them, particularly the principle that the public should frame the issues (paragraphs 14 - 18). It outlines the innovative process and events which were devised for the debate (paragraphs 19 -21) and describes how and why, in parallel with these events, we decided to commission research based on discussion groups involving members of the public - the Narrow-But-Deep element (paragraph 22).

3)   We briefly narrate the course of GM Nation? The public debate in June and July 2003, with an estimated total of over 600 regional, county and local meetings (paragraphs 24 -28).

4)   We describe the sources of our evidence (paragraphs 30 - 37), distinguishing evidence from “self-selecting” participants in the debate (people who attended meetings, sent letters and e-mails and completed feedback forms) from the Narrow-But-Deep element of discussion groups involving the general public.

5)   Under “The public agenda” (paragraphs 38 - 77) we describe issues, concerns and arguments which were common to all parts of the debate. We then examine separately the evidence we received from meetings and events (paragraphs 78 - 94), letters and e-mails (paragraphs 95 - 103), feedback forms (paragraphs 104 - 140), and the Narrow-But-Deep element (paragraphs 141 - 193). We then compare and contrast responses received in the open debate and in the Narrow-But-Deep element (paragraphs 194 - 210).

6)   We briefly report the outcome of a number of other consultations on GM issues paragraphs (211 - 230).

7)   We make a brief statement about the relationship between our report and those of the economic and scientific strands.

8)   We list the seven key messages we have identified from our report.