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.

Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday


Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Arts and Entertainment
A top literary agent has compared online giant Amazon to Isis
arts + entsAndrew Wylie has pulled no punches in criticism of Amazon
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities