The archive
UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology 1994

Introduction

Technology

Issues

Regulations

Case studies

Timeline

Publications

The archive

Links to other sites

Consensus conference logoConsensus conference logoConsensus conference logo

Final report of the lay panel
2-4 November, 1994
Tuke Hall, Regent's College, Regent's Park, London

Preface

This document is the outcome of an experiment in democracy. The experiment took the form of a three-day consensus conference in London on the subject of plant biotechnology. Following a model developed in Denmark in the late 1980s, a panel of 16 lay volunteers set the agenda for the conference, chose the expert witnesses who were called to attend, conducted the questioning, and finally delivered their verdict on plant biotechnology in the written report that forms of the heart of this document.

Consensus conferences represent one among a number of recent responses to the perceived inadequacies of representative democracy. Together with "citizens' juries", "deliberative opinion polls" and other similar initiatives, they attempt to engage members of the public more closely in the political process. Such engagement is intended both to encourage habits of active citizenship and to improve the quality of public debate and decision-making. In Denmark, consensus conferences appear to have gained a measure of recognition within the national political culture. In 1993, the Danish model was taken up for the first time in the Netherlands; and in the same year, the UK Agricultural and Food Research Council (now the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; henceforth, BBSRC) announced that it was to fund the Science Museum, London, to organise the first UK national consensus conference on plant biotechnology.

The Science Museum was delighted to take on the organisation of this conference. The Museum's mission is "to promote the public's understanding of the history and contemporary practice of science. medicine, technology and industry". All too often, the public understanding of science is seen as a one-way process in which scientists communicate their knowledge and expertise to the public. In the consensus conference, by contrast, the public understanding of science is a two-way process in which scientists and lay people enter into a dialogue, the outcome of which is intended to be better mutual understanding. In organising this consensus conference, the Museum intended not only to facilitate public debate and decision-making about plant biotechnology, but also to contribute to the re-integration of science and technology within the wider culture.

Faced with a massive amount of information and only a comparatively short time in which to digest it, the lay panel has produced an exceptionally measured and balanced report. In essence, the lay panel has given the field of plant biotechnology its qualified support. The panel concludes that, "there is scope for people to intervene in controlled ways which have the potential to provide significant benefits, and at the same time to satisfy the requirements of those people who feel that matters are progressing too quickly with an implied lack of care". The lay panel advocates, among other things, tightening up the regulations governing the release of genetically modified plants into the environment, establishing effective international controls over the commercial exploitation of plant varieties, and providing consumers with clear and comprehensible information about new biotechnological products.

I believe that these and other lay panel recommendations deserve consideration by scientists, industrialists, retailers, policy-makers, special interest groups and others with a direct or indirect involvement in plant biotechnology. Of course, the ultimate responsibility for determining public policy cannot be delegated to a consensus conference lay panel; but such a panel is broadly free from the multiple sectional interests that are at work within the field of plant biotechnology, and for this reason alone its informed judgements deserve to be taken seriously - particularly by those who claim to speak about this subject "in the public interest".

Finally, I should like to conclude by thanking: the BBSRC, whose generous funding made possible both the conference and the production of this report; the distinguished members of the Steering Committee, who oversaw the entire project; the many experts who willingly gave evidence to the lay panel; my colleagues in the Science Museum, and especially our conference manager Imelda Topping, without whose hard work the conference would never have happened; and last and most important of all, the 16 members of the lay panel, whose courage in coming forward and sheer determination in coming to terms with plant biotechnology made the whole experiment worthwhile.

John Durant
Assistant Director (Head of Science Communication)
The Science Museum, London, UK

 

Question 1
What are the key benefits and / or risks of modern plant biotechnology?

Plant biotechnology has a role to play in helping to provide the world with quality food, and with non-food products from sustainable sources. While this may have benefits, there are also risks involved.

Potential benefits may include: plant varieties with higher yields; food with improved taste and nutritional values; reduced use of fertilisers, pesticides and seed dressings; longer shelf life; provision of a sustainable source of oils for food, fuel and biodegradable plastics; hardier plants; better use of set-aside land; and valuable compounds for use as medicines, flavourings and food additives.

The potential risks include: the transfer of genes into related crops; disruption of the food chain; the creation of new weeds; infringement of plant breeders' rights; increased monoculture; the emergence of resistant pests; and undermining of traditional economies.

Biotechnology could change the world, but in order for it to be used effectively - maximising benefits and minimising risks - we also need to adapt social and economic structures to take account of the changes it might produce.

 

Question 2
What possible impact could plant biotechnology have on the consumer?

Biotechnology offers the consumer several potential benefits: improved taste, better nutritional values, longer keeping properties, variety, and consistency of quality. Bodies monitoring population growth have projected a rapidly increasing world population, which must be fed from limited and equally rapidly decreasing land resources.

We cannot realistically evaluate any product which has not yet reached the consumer. However, we feel that the public can only freely exercise its right to choose if it knows that the product has been genetically engineered. Clear, meaningful labelling is required, especially for those who have religious convictions regarding the use of genetic material and those such as vegetarians who have personal reservations. National and international agreements are required so that labelling procedures are uniform across those countries with access to these products, no matter how long this takes.

Consumers should also be informed in an impartial and responsible way, whether by Government agency or by the manufacturers and retail outlets, and possibly by a consumer information telephone line.

Genetically engineered products could potentially produce a wide variety of products, ranging from modified yeast for baking and brewing, herbicide- and pesticide-free fruit and vegetables with a longer shelf-life, vegetable oils for cooking and fuel, and even bio-degradable plastics. Scientists and regulatory bodies anticipate an enormous release of these products on to the market within the next few years.

It is also possible that medicines and vaccines could be derived from genetic manipulation of plants.

Overall safety is a prime consideration. Some people could be allergic to the original plant material used in medicines and vaccines, which could be a danger to them.

With regard to genetic alterations to food, perhaps nutrients could be lost. For example, if fruits achieve optimal taste and nutritional quality as part of the ripening and softening process, then these qualities could be reduced in longer storage, and deter the consumer from purchasing them, unless consumers are reassured to the contrary.

Nutritional factors are taken into consideration by several "watchdog" organisations, both voluntary and governmental, nationally and internationally, until consent is formally given for the open release of the product to the commercial marketplace.

There is also the question of researchers and producers seeming to create a market for their products, instead of the market expressing a need or desire for the products. Aggressive advertising could be employed in an exaggerated claim for products in the search for markets in an increasingly competitive industry.

Finally since the technology is in place and scientific knowledge of biotechnology is increasing daily, the ultimate choice lies with the consumer, who should be adequately informed of what he or she may choose.

 

Question 3
What possible impact could plant biotechnology have on the environment?

The impact of plant biotechnology on the environment is extremely difficult to predict. This difficulty was reflected by disagreement between the experts whom we chose to consult. With such a vast diversity of opinions and information from the environmental and scientific lobbies, we have attempted to take a balanced view.

There are a number of potential benefits. Genetically engineered pesticide resistant plants or crops may reduce the amount of pesticides used. Crops could be produced that would require less fertiliser which would have the advantage of fewer chemicals being used on the products, leaching into the soil and seeping into river systems.

More land can be made available for agriculture with the development of crops which are genetically engineered to grow in adverse conditions, for example in soils with high salinity or areas with low rainfall.

Modified oil seed rape could provide us with a sustainable source of oils to be used in the manufacture of plastics, oils and lubricants, thus preserving our fossil fuels.

Introduction of nitrogen fixing into the root systems of cereal crops would be beneficial in modern farming methods if it could be reasonably guaranteed that spraying nitrates on to fields would no longer be necessary. This method would further serve the environment because of the decrease in the amount of nitrates finding their way into waterways.

There are a number of potential risks. The possibility of novel genes transferring to other species exists. This is especially a worry with herbicide resistant strains. Superweeds could be produced which will be difficult to eradicate. Potential for cross pollination appears to be fairly certain; however, there is disagreement among experts about its impact.

The proposed use of "ice-minus" bacteria to combat frost damage to strawberries needs serious consideration. "Ice-minus" bacteria prevent frost/ice particles from forming, and if they were to escape to the upper atmosphere they may lead, in a worst case scenario, to destruction of airborne ice particles and disruption to weather patterns.

There is a question mark over the likely results of scaling up field trials. Controlled experiments seem unlikely to establish whether disastrous consequences can occur. There seems to be a need for regular and widespread monitoring of genetically engineered crops after licences for general use have been issued. Environmental problems have already occurred where plants have been moved out of their native environment with the result that they have grown out of control. Similar problems could occur with genetically engineered organisms.

The potential exists to engineer changes at a rate much faster than could occur in nature. The combined consequences of these changes are unpredictable. It is not possible to anticipate problems that will show up over the long period.

Modern plant biotechnology has led to development of systems of agriculture that are highly dependent on fewer and fewer varieties of the basic staples of our diet, such as wheat, corn and rice varieties that depend for their high yield upon ever higher inputs of fertilisers and pesticides. This tends to make food artificially cheap, but at a high price to the ecosystem.

Society must increase its knowledge and appreciation of environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. Gene technology can assist in this process of preserving and enhancing biodiversity and sustainability, or further the trend towards monoculture that delivers short-term benefits at long-term risk.

 

Question 4
In your view, what moral problems are raised by plant biotechnology?

There are many moral problems raised by plant biotechnology. Some people consider the incorporation of animal genes into plants to be interfering with nature and "playing God", and that the use of human genes in foodstuffs is tantamount to cannibalism.

The plant biotechnology industry is using genes of animal origin for gene reproduction on a large scale in plants and processing. This may offend some people, and people of some religious faiths may find this unacceptable. Some people of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, for example, might object to the use of products containing pig genes. There is no objection on religious grounds to the techniques used in transferring genetic material from one species to another of which we have been made aware, but the panel feels that there is a moral obligation on producers to label foods which incorporate these genes. Meaningful labelling is essential to allow vegetarians and people with religious objections to avoid products offensive to them.

Biotechnology is established largely in the developed world, and we need to recognise that our philosophies are different from those in less developed countries. The ethics and priorities of the peoples of developing countries also need to be taken into account before we pass judgement on their behalf.

Sections of the community will intuitively feel that plant biotechnology is morally wrong. This may well conflict with the philosophy of the scientific community.

 

Question 5
Why are patenting and intellectual property rights such a feature of plant biotechnology?

A patent is a contract between an inventor and society. It provides for the protection of inventions that are new, inventive and useful. This protection gives the right to all commercial benefits from the invention, for example sales and licenses; it does not control knowledge of the invention, private use or research on the invention; nor does it control the invention.

New bioengineered plants and cells, new synthetic proteins, DNA sequences not found in nature, isolated natural DNA sequences, new uses of proteins and DNA, and genes in identified and isolated forms, can all be patented.

Patents are considered necessary in order to recover some of the costs of initial research and development, and successful products will be copied unless they are protected in some way. Development times are long, but copying the end product can be very easy.

To protect the rights of the inventor it is recognised by all involved that while the knowledge and benefits are shared, the patent ensures that the rights of the inventor are preserved in a competitive world. If patents were not given, this could severely hinder progress as the research information may not be made freely available. Inventors should be able to sell this information.

Some people believe that morally no one individual company has a right over any living matter. As a gene is considered to be living matter, there is some debate about whether it can be patented.

Patenting also covers any products obtained from the isolated gene, and the international community is called upon to balance the legitimate concerns of the research companies who invest in this activity and the vast number of peasant farmers who maintain and protect the many local varieties of crops that are essential for the preservation of biodiversity. The stock of original plants in the gene bank is the property of the developed world. Should the indigenous plant become extinct, there should be a means of ensuring a sharing of the profits derived from the continued use of plants derived from the gene bank in the country of origin.

Research is expensive and lengthy, but there is a conflict between government research agencies on the one hand and private companies and individuals on the other. Progress might be hindered if companies are expected to carry out research for no reward, but information and technology should be available to those countries who wish to use it, either freely or using an alternative negotiated, and binding, agreement. International consensus on the free exchange of information is desirable in the long term.

Overturning a patent is an expensive procedure. It is therefore important to ensure that patents are not granted which offer too broad a scope. The patenting authorities should have access to sufficient and relevant expert advice.

Patents can not be granted for something that is living and that already exists, or for a discovery. However, it would appear that the goal posts are being moved to the advantage of multi-national companies and organisations in the private sector. If patenting is to continue then protective legislation must have teeth. It is not enough merely to police the system on the basis of trust.

Current patenting procedure appears to be both a risky and an inadequate method of dealing with the issues raised by plant biotechnology. The panel recommends that this issue be examined in an appropriate legislative forum, with a view to providing a more appropriate framework -- either completely new, or adapted from an existing system.

 

Question 6
How can we ensure that plant biotechnology benefits rather than harms the developing world now and in the future?

Public funding and partnership are keywords in the global issues. Some degree of international accord is needed if less developed countries are to benefit from plant biotechnology. There should be more thought and international support put towards guiding new technological advances in these countries according to their social and economic needs. We do not have the right to deny less well-off societies the benefits of biotechnology.

Organisations set up to develop products appropriate to the needs of the developing world must be assured of stable funding and support.

The work of multinational companies should be scrutinised after they have been given approval by a regulatory authority to commence commercial production and operation. This should ensure respect for local farmers and their crops, and the setting up of local research projects for their needs.

There should not be differential safety standards between countries. International legislation is required.

Developing countries should be encouraged to work at researching plant biotechnology for themselves; and at the same time, countries should be encouraged to share their information with other countries.

Developing world representation must be ensured on any international forums on biotechnology.

Use of appropriate technology must be encouraged rather than allowing engineered hybrids to be pushed onto unsuspecting communities.

More widespread international funding must be encouraged for bodies set up to do research appropriate to the developing countries.

 

Question 7
What are the prospects for effective regulation of plant biotechnology?

Regulatory control in the UK is among the most stringent; however there is still room for improvement. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment makes recommendations for approval and then abdicates all responsibility - which passes to the successful applicant - and then only becomes further involved if a change is reported by the applicant (e.g., a change in the circumstances of the original submission).

Should the theoretical approver also be the investigator? Previous governments have rejected this as an opportunity for intellectual corruption. An independent ombudsman for monitoring investigative action should be appointed.

It is strongly recommended that the relevant authority consider European Union law, because interpretation is different from country to country.

Effective international control, while difficult to achieve, would be ideal.

With the laxity of control, an international bonding and registration system should be introduced, with a substantial amount of deposited money involved. This would protect the well intended, and limit operations of the unscrupulous. Members of any regulatory agency should not have any commercial interest in plant biotechnology.

The procedures of modern biotechnology must have new regulations which are fair to primary producers, developers and end users. There are many voluntary conventions, protocols and assessment submission procedures in place already, but they vary from country to country. The several bodies in our country seem convinced that their regulatory procedures are being observed; however, since no biotechnological product is yet on the open market, these procedures themselves can not immediately be assessed. Experts are undoubtedly required to carry these out, but political debate has not yet begun. Perhaps it is premature to suggest rather a long period of monitoring after consent, especially by a separate group of experts. We suggest that a government minister should oversee this vast new development so that opportunities to benefit humanity are not lost in the face of the challenges it offers. Government should be encouraging controlled research in the public sector to maximise benefits to all, rather than leaving it to the private sector whose interest will lie with the profits.

Current labelling conventions do not ensure that genetically modified organisms are identified in products. This is a matter for regulation.

Copyright © National Centre for Biotechnology Education, 2006 | www.ncbe.reading.ac.uk