A public debate on biotechnology and food
Report by the Temporary Committee on Biotechnology and Food, chaired by
Dr. J.C. Terlouw
Dr. H.M. de Boois, R. Dorrestein, Prof. Dr. H. Galjaard, Prof. Dr. F.J.
Kok, M.D.A.M. van der Laan-Veraart, Prof. Dr. L. de la Rive Box, H.C.
Scheffer, Prof. Dr. E.R. Seydel
The Hague, 9 January 2002
Last year, a public debate was held in the Netherlands which was called
Eten en Genen, loosely translated as Genes on the Menu. The debate
is a very special event in the more general, long-standing discussion
taking place in society about biotechnology and food. What has made this
public debate special is the concerted effort that was made to recruit
a broader public in discussion of the subject. This was, in fact, the
crux of the Government’s assignment to the Committee. The Committee’s
task was to bypass the usual group of outspoken supporters and opponents,
and to make a special effort to seek out the ‘common man’, the ‘average
consumer’ and ask them about their views on the rapid advances in biotechnology
and how they feel about the sometimes uncertain consequences of this technology.
The Minister of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries, speaking
on behalf of the entire Cabinet, asked the Committee in particular to
find out which aspects are important to the public with respect to themes
such as food safety, food and health, environment and ecology, citizenship
and consumerism, and the global food supply.
The Committee has always been aware of the difficulty of this assignment.
The application of biotechnology may have dramatic consequences in many
areas and the stakes are high. In addition, the Committee had to work
within practical constraints, such as a relatively small budget and a
tight schedule for organising and holding the debate and reporting on
the results. All in all, this made for a truly challenging task.
The Committee was forced to accommodate its aims within the limiting conditions,
above, without affecting the essence of its task: to organise a meaningful
exchange of views in the community, and to encourage the public to voice
their arguments and opinions as well as their questions. Anyone wanting
to make himself heard would be given the opportunity to do so. The Committee
also tried to get as many people as possible to attend public meetings
where they could talk about food and biotechnology. Every voice counted.
A debate is not about how many are for or against, but about people’s
own thoughts and convictions as well as the validity of their arguments.
All the debate activities together have contributed to our report to the
Government and Parliament about the public’s views on biotechnology and
The debate was designed with express consideration for the perceptions
and lives of real people. Nine realistic, though sometimes hypothetical
cases were drawn up which were used as the basis for the information campaign
and to distil people’s views. People were asked to consider the nine cases
and to form an opinion on the pros
and cons of using biotechnology in food production, and to discuss this
with others in an organised debate. The Committee also actively sought
out citizens and consumers at locations where a good response was likely:
at schools, at gatherings of clubs or interest groups, and at supermarkets.
It also advertised in various media, including the Internet. The methods
used by the Committee are described in more detail in Appendix A.
The subject of the debate was hardly new. In order to understand the context
in which the debate took place, it is important to realise that genetic
engineering has played a significant role in life sciences research since
the 1970s. Genetic scientists met with little resistance as they developed
practical tools now widely accepted in forensic medicine (in the fight
against crime) and medical diagnostics. The pharmaceutical industry is
enthusiastic about the possibilities of biotechnology in the development
of new vaccines and drugs in the future. Around the world, many see biotechnology
and molecular biology as the second modern innovative revolution, after
information and communication technology. In our own country, the Government
has spent about 275 million euros on genomics research.
In agriculture, gene technology is being applied on a large scale around
the world. In particular, genetically engineered maize and soybean are
processed in many food products. In 2001, about 50 million hectares of
arable land, worldwide, was under transgenic crops: maize and soybean
in North America and Argentina, and cotton in China. In 2000, in the United
States alone, transgenic crops were grown on more than 30 million hectares.
In that year, transgenic crops were grown in thirteen countries around
the world (eight industrialised countries, five developing countries).
Of the global soybean crop in 2000, 36 per cent comprised transgenic varieties.
In comparison, seven per cent of the global cereal crop consisted of genetically
engineered varieties. According to the United Nations, about 150 to 200
transgenic crops are currently in development.
In Europe, many products on the supermarket shelves may contain small
amounts of genetically modified (GM) ingredients, primarily from maize
and soybean. Genetic modification is also a common application during
the processing of food products. Experts in the fodder sector estimate
that 75% of the compound feed used in the Netherlands may contain GM ingredients.
According to industry experts, nearly all consumers in developed countries
have been exposed to GM enzymes. For example, fifty per cent of the enzymes
produced for bread-baking are said to be genetically modified. In the
case of sugar syrup, this is estimated to be as much as 80%, compared
to 25% for cheese. Unlike genetic engineering in the medical sector, however,
the application of this technology in food production is highly controversial.
The debate was organised to enable participation at different levels by
people from different target groups in the population. The Committee’s
debate design is described in detail elsewhere in this report. A large
group of people were canvassed just once for their opinion, others were
brought together in an organised debate. A small group participated intensively,
taking part in several debates. It is clear that the way in which people
are approached is reflected in their response. Factors that influence
response include whether or not people have been informed about the subject
beforehand, or whether they are part of a representative cohort. People
who were asked ad hoc to give their opinion were usually very critical
and negative about the application of biotechnology and food.
The Committee observed that the better people were informed and the
more they had thought about the issue, the stricter their conditions for
the use of biotechnology in food. Clearly, being well-informed did
not lead to a more positive view of biotechnology in relation to food.
This group of people was more aware of what they find important. The most
important precondition is that the public must be able to rely on the
authorities which monitor biotechnology applications in food production:
the government, science, trade and industry. At the moment, this precondition
is not being met to the public’s satisfaction. People will become more
tolerant towards the use of biotechnology in food production when the
government, science and trade and industry succeed in fulfilling the necessary
preconditions. Finally, as regards information, there is a fairly large
gap between what the experts know and the public’s knowledge on this subject.
This naturally affects the nature of the debate.
The Committee observed that the public’s confidence in government has
declined. This decline does not only pertain to the government’s role
in food quality and food safety. People have become more emancipated,
they are better informed, better educated, more independent and generally
better equipped to form their own opinion. The government does not yet
fully realise this. Many people thought that the public debate on biotechnology
and food had come much too late. They appreciated being asked for their
opinion, but also pointed out that developments – nationally and internationally
-- had already gone too far to be stopped.
The Committee does not believe that the public mistrusts science as such.
Scientists have achieved impressive results. But scientists also publicly
admit that they do not know everything, that some consequences of the
applications of their work cannot be foreseen. Their assessments may differ
and indeed sometimes conflict.
This adds to the public’s uncertainty. In the Netherlands, the public’s
views on farming and the food industry must be considered in the light
of the recent food crises. Dioxins in animal feed and animal products,
BSE, classical swine fever, foot-and- mouth disease, hormones and antibiotics,
and salmonella contamination… these have all been heavy blows to consumers’
belief in the safety of their food.
Genetic modification is an impressive new technology, but its application
in practice depends on public support. This is only now being recognised.
The government and political parties must learn to act according to this
principle. The most important thing is to restore citizens’ confidence
in their government, because it is the government that lays down the preconditions
for research and enterprise. This is dealt with in the Committee’s recommendations,
elsewhere in this report. Briefly, the Committee recommends:
à The establishment of a national or European
Food Safety Authority. This should be an independent body charged with
the authorisation of foodstuffs and funded by the government. There must
be no government influence, however, in the body’s execution of its tasks.
à The development of new and better methods
to enable the government to start an early dialogue on the possible application
of life sciences research with a broader public. This is necessary because
public support is vital for the application of a new technology. Citizens
must have access to objective, balanced, easy-to-follow information in
order to form their opinion on new technological applications and the
conditions under which it would be acceptable. The Committee suggests
that the government commissions a study in the near future, culminating
in an official position on the most appropriate way of communicating with
the public about biotechnological applications.
à Giving the best possible guarantee that
consumers’ freedom of choice will be maintained, by laying down legislation
on accessible, detailed production information.
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