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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 00:46 GMT
GM opposition 'was overestimated'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

GM plants and flowers in tub   Monsanto
The issue remains clearly divided
A national debate across the UK about people's views of genetically-modified crops probably exaggerated the strength of anti-GM feeling, researchers say.

The debate, GM Nation?, did break new ground, they say in a report on the venture, called A Deliberative Future?

The report says the debate needed more resources, and it did little to involve people who were not already committed.

An opinion survey the researchers took part in appears to show broadly similar findings, with many people undecided.

Deeply sceptical

More than half of Britons who took part in the debate itself said GM crops should never be introduced under any circumstances.

Opinion is deeply split, and ministers won't please everyone, whatever they do
Professor Nick Pidgeon, University of East Anglia
An official report published last year on the results of the 600 meetings held in June and July reflected widespread doubts about the benefits of GM technology.

The GM Nation? report said the public mood on GM "ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection". Only 2% said they would be happy to eat GM foods.

The new report is the work of an evaluation team of independent researchers from Cardiff University, the University of East Anglia, and the Institute of Food Research, working as part of UEA's Understanding Risk programme.

It praised GM Nation? but concludes that it "failed fully to meet its potential, and conveyed an overestimate of the strength of anti-GM feeling in the UK".

The report says:

  • GM Nation? was an innovative experiment in public engagement on a difficult and highly contentious topic
  • many participants found it a meaningful and valuable exercise but were sceptical about the impact it would have on government policy
  • the debate lacked resources of money, time and expertise
  • it generally failed to engage uncommitted people (one of its key objectives).
Tom Horlick-Jones of Cardiff University, team leader of the evaluation project, said the report told a story of successes and failures.

Think first

He said: "The devil really is in the detail here. It's no good announcing a public debate, setting up a board to oversee it, and then throwing money at it.

"These things need careful design, they need not to be rushed, and they probably need a little more money - but that money has to be well spent."

Rice shoots   Monsanto
Supporters think GMs will help to feed the world
The researchers have also published the results of a public opinion survey undertaken by UEA and the research company Mori.

They say 36% of respondents expressed overall opposition to GM food, 13% supported it and 39% did neither.

Most (85%) thought we did not know enough about the potential long-term health effects of GM food, and 79% agreed that organisations separate from government should regulate it.

Damned if they do

Professor Nick Pidgeon of UEA said: "Our results show the extent of outright opposition to GM food and crops amongst the British population is probably lower than indicated in many of the GM Nation? findings."

He told BBC News Online: "The survey findings are supported by information from questionnaires we gave to participants in the GM Nation? meetings.

"What our research showed is that there is widespread concern about GMs, and the government will have to take that into account.

"Opinion is deeply split, and ministers won't please everyone, whatever they do."

Mori interviewed a nationally representative quota sample of 1,363 people aged 15 years and older face-to-face in their own homes in England, Scotland and Wales between 19 July and 12 September. All data were weighted to the known profile of the British population.

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19 Feb 04  |  Politics
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13 Jan 04  |  Science/Nature
Most Britons 'oppose GM crops'
24 Sep 03  |  Science/Nature
GM science review answers few questions
19 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature

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