Michael Meacher’s admission that he had grave misgivings about GM technology when environment minister is hardly a surprise. That his replacement, Elliot Morley, is now reading from Meacher’s old ministerial script is as inevitable as it is disheartening. “There has never been any indication there has been a health risk,” Morley assures us, even as Meacher is accusing the government of seeking to discredit reputable research that casts doubt on GM’s safety. The public was not inclined to trust ministers on this issue before. Now, whatever the government says about GM, people will be inclined to believe the opposite.
In the autumn, the Royal Society will publish the results of the government’s crop trials. They are widely expected to be positive, providing ministers with grounds to give a green light to GM food sales in supermarkets. Greenpeace and other environmental groups are bound to point out that there have been no independent studies of health risks.
In response to the public’s disinclination to trust either politicians or “experts”, the government has made much of its public debate on GM crops. “GM Nation?” involves large public meetings, local and online discussions and a questionnaire. The public debate is costing £500,000 and is overseen by a steering group made up of GM supporters, opponents and agnostics. The scale of the exercise is impressive, and could have been an important development on the road to more open government. Unfortunately, GM Nation? is flawed as a consultation exercise.
To be taken seriously, such public involvement should meet two criteria. First, the agency doing the consulting should enter the process willing to accept difficult conclusions. Second, there should be a formal procedure for decision-makers to respond and if necessary explain why they are not implementing the recommendations.
But it is unlikely that GM Nation? will discomfit ministers. The facts of GM safety are fuzzy and incomplete. For example, longitudinal evidence on the effect on human health will not be available for several years. Also, the nature of the consultation means that it is likely to be dominated by organised supporters and opponents of the technology. In view of this, the government might as well save our money and write the conclusions now: “Some people think GM is safe, some people think it is not, some people think the benefits outweigh the risks and others prefer a more precautionary approach.” Armed with the evidence of divided opinion, the government will be free to continue its chosen course and the public is unlikely to feel any wiser or safer.
A more robust approach would have started earlier and continued for longer than the two months allocated to GM Nation?, which would have allowed new evidence to be considered as it emerged. At its heart would have been a high-profile panel or jury to listen to the facts and opinions and reach conclusions on key questions. The proceedings could have been shown on TV or the web and the jury’s conclusions would have stood for what any representative group of citizens would have concluded with the same evidence. This would have been riskier for ministers, but – who knows? – it might have restored some trust in science, government and the businesses that stand to gain from GM food.
Matthew Taylor is Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research