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Genes on the Menu
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by Temporary Committee on Biotechnology and Food 08 the future of Food & Biotech

A public debate on biotechnology and food

Report by the Temporary Committee on Biotechnology and Food, chaired by Dr. J.C. Terlouw
Committee members:
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

1. Introduction
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 food.

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.

You can download the full report as a *.pdf file: click here

Visit also the conference about 'the future of Food & Biotech' and the sections with articles, books and links.

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