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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?