Precautionary Expertise for GM Crops: National Report – United Kingdom: Precaution as Process

Oreszczyn, Sue (2004). Precautionary Expertise for GM Crops: National Report – United Kingdom: Precaution as Process. Centre for Technology Strategy, The Open University.


This report considers the recent ‘precautionary approach’ to commercialisation of GM crops adopted by the UK. Accounts of precaution and precautionary practices for GM crops in the UK are set against the backdrop of current debate concerning potential commercialisation of GM herbicide-tolerant crops. In October 1998 the Government announced its intention for a ‘managed development’ of GM crops. A major obstacle to commercialisation was the controversy over the possibility that broad-spectrum herbicides may be harmful to wildlife habitats. In response to these concerns Government funded a farm-scale research programme to consider the possible impacts on biodiversity of growing the GM herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops maize, sugar beet, and spring and autumn sown oilseed rape. These became known as the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs). At this time the Government also sought to widen its risk assessment procedures to include agro-ecological expertise. Industry agreed to postpone commercialisation until the FSEs provided the evidence required for a final decision on the commercialisation of the GM crops. However, as a precautionary measure, the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) have been controversial. Rather than settling these environmental matters, as originally intended, they intensified debate by providing a focus for people’s concerns.

Different interpretations of precaution are evident in the accounts UK policy actors give of the issues surrounding GM crops and commercialisation. Some policy actors are concerned that the precautionary principle could be used for ulterior motives; for example, industry groups are concerned about the potential for precaution to stifle innovation or to be used as a tactic for delaying commercialisation. Others view it as an opportunity for greater fairness, openness and inclusiveness. Precaution and the precautionary principle appear to be considered by people in the UK in at least two different ways: as a precise ‘toolkit’ i.e. a set of steps to follow, and as a mindset, i.e. as an underlying or implicit aspect of a person’s perspective – that is, as something which is triggered in particular circumstances, and as something which is a more general way of acting.

Taking a precautionary approach has involved a general process of broadening expertise and inclusion of a wide range of views. A diversity of views is providing a valuable input into a negotiation over the path that society should take. The views are also highlighting uncertainties other than those dealt with by the scientific risk assessment process, such as uncertainties concerning biodiversity, co-existence of different types of agriculture, and the future of agriculture more generally.

The Government has been concerned over the lack of public confidence in decisionmaking processes. The establishment of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) in 2000 aimed to build greater public confidence in the way Government dealt with issues other than the science. The AEBC’s membership represents the broad spectrum of views on GM crops. Its members have sought ways for concerns to be more formally elicited, analysed and documented. The AEBC has been influential on Government thinking and action, particularly through its publications, which have raised the profile of criticisms of current risk regulation structures and have been a catalyst for deeper consideration of GM issues by all stakeholders. The AEBC has applied pressure on the Government for public policies and regulatory frameworks to expose and embrace the different views that exist on GM crops and to develop shared understandings. This pressure led Government to agree to hold a more formal, open, process of public debate alongside a review of the scientific issues of GM crops and a study of the costs and benefits of GM crops.

The formal public debate, called ‘GM Nation?’, represents an intentionally more formal approach to broadening expertise. ‘GM Nation?’ was an attempt to link expert judgements with broader public concerns for GM crops, and provided an opportunity for developing mutual learning. It was also an attempt to create an arena in which lay people could participate and therefore represented a step forward in the conduct of public consultation for policy decision-making processes in the UK. However, ‘GM 3 Nation?’ has done little to bring views closer together. It has also been criticised for the way that it was organised and financed. Throughout ‘GM Nation?’ it remained unclear how the ‘public’ views were to be fed into the overall decision. Further, there has been little advice provided to government as to how to deal with the wealth of perspectives, demands and expectations such processes generate.

Following the results of the formal public debate, and taking into consideration the results of the FSEs, the science review and the costs and benefits study, in January 2004 the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, publicly stated the Government’s intention to adopt a ‘precautionary approach’ to GM crops. Government announced that it would allow the commercial production of one GM crop, GMHT maize, until October 2006, subject to certain conditions. However, Bayer CropScience has since decided to discontinue its efforts to commercialise this GM forage maize in the UK.

The increasing likelihood of the commercialisation of GM crops in the UK has resulted in co-existence and liability becoming central to discussions. The issue of coexistence of GM and non-GM crops has highlighted not only the conflicting views of the organisations representing diverse farming communities within the UK, but also the tension between the national and local positions on GM crops.

Thus new approaches to the policy process are providing new opportunities for learning. There is greater communication between government advisory committees, and between those committees, NGOs and the wider public. Government structures are increasingly opening up, both intentionally and unintentionally, to wider expertise. As a result, Government has broadened its view of uncertainty as it has gradually accepted that decisions on commercialisation are more complex than it originally thought. Research agendas have broadened in response to queries from ACRE and the AEBC. Research is not simply providing ‘evidence’ for making policy decisions, but is contributing to a broader process of learning as policy actors rethink the policy problems. As research is used to endorse different opinions and further fuel debates it is contributing to a broader view of GM crops. Further, in highlighting the potential problems with GM crops, policy actors have raised the profile of wider issues, such as those associated with conventional agriculture or with the introduction of new technologies more generally. However, the opening up of government processes has yet to result in a calming of objections to the commercialisation of GM crops or criticisms surrounding scientific expertise. Yet events in the UK suggest that the period of the voluntary agreement with industry over commercialisation has been used constructively by the UK to further develop a ‘precautionary approach’, whose components and outcomes are being closely observed by other member states.

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