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.

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence