Science: Getting a taste of things to come: Susan Watts attends a 'consensus conference' investigating the merits of plant biotechnology

TASTIER tomatoes, rot-free bananas and healthier bread were on the agenda of an unusual experiment at the weekend, when a panel of 16 'ordinary' people gathered in a quiet country house near Oxford to take a look at the science of genetic engineering. Their discussions may help to determine whether food items such as these should find their way on to our menus.

The experiment, an opportunity for the public to assess what science and technology has in store, has never before been attempted in Britain. This novel approach to assessing new technologies was pioneered in Denmark in the late Eighties, and taken up in the Netherlands last year to examine the genetic modification of animals.

Britain's first attempt at what are known as 'consensus conferences' was organised by the Science Museum in London and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. After advertising for volunteers, the organisers chose at random 16 out of the 400 people who replied.

The weekend conference was the second time the group had met. In September they heard from representatives of the industry and academic research groups involved in plant genetic engineering. On this occasion they heard the views of experts about what science can and cannot achieve.

The group hopes to select a broad-based panel of experts to appear at a public consensus conference in London next month, after which the panel will write a report. They will ask such questions as: 'Why do we need this new technology?' and 'What effect will plant biotechnology have on developing countries?'

They want to know more about such issues as the patenting of engineered plants, and who can claim to 'own' plant genes; the labelling of novel foods and how consumers can be sure that what they are eating is safe and nutritious; whether the planting of the new crops is environmentally safe; and how best to regulate such work, nationally and globally, whether for research or commercial purposes.

The group also is calling for more discussion of the moral and ethical issues raised by genetic engineering, and its possible use in military applications.

One member of the group, Deanna Brostoff, describes herself as 'a middle-aged, middle-class' catering manager running her own business. Her interest in food technology was prompted by trends she has noticed among her customers. 'I have always been concerned about the food we are eating,' she says, 'and more and more of my clients are becoming more vegetarian, and more particular in demanding free-range produce.

'I didn't know a thing about plant biotechnology. I would have said that I was against it before because I'm always against tampering. But now I can see the benefits. I have learned a lot about something that I used to know nothing about.'

Dave Chamberlain, 29, a civil servant who volunteered in order to 'exercise my brain a bit', felt his job as a customs officer allowed him to contribute little of direct benefit to society, and that the consensus conference would offer him a chance to play a more valuable role.

The first time the group met, Mr Chamberlain says, it was fairly intense. 'People were a little bit suspicious of each other, wondering what everyone was really like. But now we're all much more laid back.'

So far the group had not been exposed to anyone fiercely opposed to plant biotechnology, he says. 'There appears to be no real fanatics out there . . . but then we're not discussing the more sensitive issues such as the engineering of animals or even people.'

The group initially was given a list of 26 'experts' who were prepared to appear, but members soon found themselves asking for names of others whose help they might seek. By Sunday afternoon, one of the group's chief worries was that it did not know whom to look to for the information it now requires.