Expert View: Plant new seeds in the GM debate

Last month the Government released its "GM Nation" report, which summarised the findings of 675 public meetings, 36,557 feedback forms, a series of focus groups and public emails. And according to the report, we are overwhelmingly opposed to the whole GM concept.

Should we be surprised by these findings? Certainly not. As I have argued previously on these pages, the GM debate is no longer a scientific but a political one. The primary reasons why 54 per cent never want GM crops grown in Britain, or 84 per cent believe they will cause unacceptable interference with nature, are that the survey participants trust neither the messages put forward by those policy makers nor the agro-businesses that are trying to introduce GM crops to the UK, and aren't convinced there will be any benefits in using them.

So what now? Should we go on with more public consultation exercises on this topic? No, the outcome will be the same. What is needed is for the regulators to re-establish trust with the public. This is not easily done, as the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that promote anti-GM messages have much more credibility with the public than the regulators supporting the concept.

For example, in his book In the Chamber of Risk, Professor William Leiss of Queen's University, Ontario, shows how quickly opinion on genetically modified organisms can swing once NGOs become involved. Before Greenpeace launched its global campaign against GMOs in Canada in the autumn of 1999, only one third of Canadians polled had any concerns about them. By December that same year, almost two thirds were expressing fears about having GM products on their shelves, with the public no longer believing the messages of the regulators or the scientists that GM foods were safe.

Of course, faced with such a dramatic swing in such a short time, it is very hard for regulators to recapture the initiative, which is exactly what we are seeing in the UK today. And they will continue to lose ground until they put time and resources into communicating risks properly.

The regulators can do this in two ways. First, they can try to emulate the sort of culture established by the US Environ- mental Protection Agency, which developed an in-house research programme on risk communication in the 1980s to ensure that the research conducted on a topic met its specific needs.

Over many years, in addition, the agency has paid for members of its staff to attend outside courses (such as the annual programme run by the Harvard Centre for Risk Analysis).

By taking into account the theories and concepts of risk communication, the agency has been largely able to rebuild its trust base with the American public.

Second, regulators need to engage with the public to uncover exactly what concerns it has. For example, Baruch Fischhoff and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have shown that by carrying out carefully constructed face-to-face surveys with people lasting up to two hours or more - and then, based on the results of these surveys, developing "mental models" showing the public's actual knowledge of the issue at hand - regulators were able to construct risk communication guides that were much more attuned to common concerns.

In sum, UK regulatory bodies such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have a lot of work to do. But rather than pouring money into consultation exercises, let's ensure they first pay attention to the importance of risk communication.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director, King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College London.

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