[For further information on the Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and
Agriculture see Forum website.
Note, participants are assumed to be speaking on their own behalf, unless they state otherwise.]
Sent: 27 January 2005 10:33
Subject: 49: Leave it to the experts // Getting the public to decide
This is from John Hodges, again. I have two points.1. Leave it to the experts:
Some contributors to the discussion advocate leaving decisions of GM foods to the experts because they have the knowledge. That is a naive view because the experts do not agree. Here are three positions taken by experts.
First, there are experts who are convinced that GM seeds and food have been adequately tested, carry no risk and bring benefits to the food chain. Many of them are employed by or close to the business organizations producing and selling these products. Other experts also holding this view are more independent in their employment but are dependent upon the test data provided by the companies producing and testing the GM seeds and foods. Second, there are other experts who are cautious. They examine the available data and consider that the short-term testing procedures are inadequate, risks remain and alleged benefits are not clear. Third, there are other experts who cite data showing harmful effects to the environment and to humans eating GM foods. An example is Starlink corn which was withdrawn by the US government after general release because some consumers suffered allergic reactions.
Conclusion: Leaving the decisions to the experts does not provide an acceptable answer because they are not agreed. Experts are not able, at this point, to make wise, informed and prudent decisions on behalf of all humanity.2. Getting the public to decide:
Even if all farmers and all consumers in developing could be so well educated that they made informed decisions - it would still be a split vote. Is the decision on what everyone eats to be based upon a majority vote? What about democratic freedom of choice for those who do not want to eat GM foods? Food is different from drugs. Individuals can opt out of using medical drugs. If the general food chain carries GM products - no-one can opt out. That remains a major factor in democratic decision-making about food.
In my view, the alleged benefits of GM seeds and foods for all stakeholders need to be demonstrated consistently before any blanket decisions are made to introduce GM seeds and food to developing countries - either by experts or by everyone.
e-mail: hodgesjohn (at) compuserve.com
Sent: 27 January 2005 10:34
Subject: 50: Information for farmers should be relevant to farming
Australian farmer, Julie Newman again.
There is a common thread in this conference that is very representative of the debate globally.
On one end of the scale we have scientists that genuinely love the excitement and creativity that recombinant DNA techniques have introduced. There is opportunity in this pioneering stage to gain international recognition for new work and the patent opportunities for corporate investors give the scientific community the opportunity of reaping financial reward for their efforts. Scientists want to share this excitement and appear to have genuine puzzlement at why people are concerned. On the other end of the scale we have concerned consumers who do not want the product for a range of reasons.
The problem is that the discussion is about farmers who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Farmers main priority is to make a living and to continue farming in a sustainable manner without being negatively impacted by government decisions. Can governments guarantee this? If not, how can they manage these risks? How can they communicate the issue in order to gain feedback from farmers?
Scientists and governments must understand that the information farmers need is not to excite them about the technical details of transgenics. This is a waste of time and money as farmers do not want to be bombarded with information that is irrelevent to farming and it has little impact apart from wasting money and time. The many lectures I have attended appear to be a genuine attempt to confuse the issue by branding all biotechnology together and even going so far as to try to attack existing competitive non-GM varieties (eg. triazine tolerant canola / mutagenesis) and most farmers leave feeling understandably confused and numb to the debate (which appears to be the intention). These anaesthetic lectures have avoided the issues relevent to farmers and concentrated on the issues applicable to scientists.
Farmers generally only need information relevant to their farming practice as they are no more interested in the technical details of science than scientists are interested in the technical details of farming. Will the GM variety be better than existing varieties? Farmers need evidence of locally grown independent (unbiased) trial data with an independent and trustworthy agronomist giving opinion as to why there was a difference. For example, the yield increase could be due to better chemical control, not due to the variety concerned, and the agronomist can therefore recommend alternative options.
Farmers need details of full costs involved with GM crops. Costs must not be calculated on the introductory offer but need to be calculated on GM growing experience using comparisons with the jump in costs after introduction. For example, in US, the Roundup Ready soybeans user fee was minimal on launching but has now escalated from US$9.65 per 50 lb bag in 2004 to US $13.65 per bag in 2005. Coupled with the falling commodity prices, this could well make growing GM soybeans quite unprofitable without subsidies. Patent versus plant breeder rights needs to be explained in simple comparitive statements but the key issue of concern is that farmers can not replant their own seeds and farmers become contract growers of a product owned by someone else. How far this is taken will be dependent on contractual agreements and these contracts will need to be explained to uneducated farmers before expecting all farmers to understand what they are signing for. From this information, a GM/non-GM alternative gross margin comparison can be calculated and farmers can decide if this is an option worth considering. If it is then, as previously discussed in more detail, of critical importance is markets, segregation, sustainability and, most importantly, liability.
As a farmer I would like to reiterate my advice to governments and scientists that if you want to communicate this issue to farmers, give them accurate practical information farmers need that is relevent to their farm practices and sustainability. Don't concentrate on trying to give farmers scientific information that has little or no relevence to their livelihoods.
Network of Concerned Farmers
P.O. Box 6
julie (at) non-gm-farmers.com
Sent: 27 January 2005 16:46
Subject: 51: Guiding questions - Malawi
This is Hastings Zidana again, from the Malawi National Aquaculture Centre, a researcher in fish breeding and genetics. To answer some of the guiding questions from Section 6 of the background document in relation to my country's situation.
a) "What priority should governments give to involving the rural people in decision-making regarding GMOs in developing countries?"
The rural people should be given priority whenever the decision would like to be made regarding GMOs, e.g. introducing new GM crop varieties. All situations like regulation setting, the way government involves rural people's decisions when other national regulations would like to be put in force, the same should happen with GMOs.
b) "In which situations is it most important to include the rural people in decision-making regarding GMOs in developing countries?"
All situations should be given equal opportunity for rural people participation. However, this may not be practical in disaster situations, this is why it is good to mitigate such stuations.
c) "How can public participation opportunities be extended to groups in rural communities who are more difficult to reach or who have less access to communication channels (e.g., women, subsistence farmers)?"
I will come back to my earlier posting (Message 17, January 19) that the extension system is a good bullet which can penetrate into those more difficult to reach. However, this system needs more capital to operate. At the moment, the extension system is being privatised. It is the duty of these private extension sytems to disseminate such information to the rural masses.
d) "Should specific considerations be given to involving indigenous communities in decision-making regarding GMOs? If so, how can this best be achieved?"
Yes, issues like strengthening the extension system need to be given special consideration when you want to use this system to disseminate information. This can be done through human resource capacity building by giving enough training of communication skills and scientific skills involved in GMOs.
e) "What is the best medium (e.g. newspaper, radio, Internet etc.) for rural people in developing countries to access quality information about GMOs, that will allow them to participate effectively in the decision-making process?"
Not the best, but the most used media out of the examples given is the radio. The rural people do not have Internet and they hardly buy newspapers.
f) "Which mechanisms can be used to ensure that relevant and reliable information/content is provided by the above media?"
The people in the know how e.g. extension service staff develop the messages and give them to the radio stations so that they can broadcast the messages at a given time.
h) "What is the best medium for rural people in developing countries to provide their inputs, if requested, to the decision-making processes regarding GMOs?"
The member of parliament in the area should be able to take the decision of the rural people to the parliament where country decisions are made. If the regulation is to be made by the Government then the extension staff should carry the message to the responsible ministry or government department.
i) "How should local languages of the rural people be dealt with in a public participation exercise?"
The messages carried to the rural people should be translated into local languages so that the rural people should be able to understand and have full participation.
j) "Who can best represent the interests of the rural people in stakeholder discussions?"
The government staff or private sector involved in dissemination of the information.
k) "Involving the public in decision-making processes can be costly. Who should pay?"
The government should be responsible for its citizens. It is up to the government to look for funds to manage the programs. However, the developing country governments have very tight programs. Usually programs like these are participated with the help of the developed countries through development projects.
National Taiwan Ocean University,
Department of Aquaculture,
202, Pei-Ning Road,
MP: + 886 0925956484
hzidana2004 (at) yahoo.co.uk
Sent: 27 January 2005 16:53
Subject: 52: Ideas for risk communication
I am a faculty member in a US food science department with an extension-research appointment and have been working in risk communication research for about ten years, focusing on consumer perceptions of new food technologies.
I have observed that nearly everyone responding to this topic falls into a 'for' or 'against' stance about 'biotechnology' and speaks of risks or benefits, which are usually identified as such based on one's personal position. (It is very hard for anyone who has followed this debate to be neutral.) I would like to suggest considering the use of a public policy framework which builds on the ideas outlined nicely by Cleofe Torres (Message 38, January 24). In such a framework, the issue needs to be clearly defined and then viable solutions need to be outlined. Each of these solutions than has impacts. In the discussion to date, one of the issues surfacing is whether 'farmers or consumers' should be involved in setting policy. The two solutions being proposed are yes and no with various reasons.
In risk communication, impacts of a technology's use or non-use are presented as consequences. The reader or listener has the option or assignment of determining if the consequences are risks or benefits in their own mind. Risks and benefits are almost always biased by ones location in the hierarchy or food chain so a risk to one person is a benefit to another. In addition, it is important to point out which consequences are 'hypotheses' and which represent real data. For instance, the hypothesis that use of GE varieties would lead to more pesticide use has been validated to some extent by C. Benbrook's report, although there is disagreement about this too. Another responsibility of a risk communication is to present a variety of viewpoints about an issue solution. Debates imply winners and losers and black and white issues. I certainly don't hear this in the comments so far and personally feel that compromise will be the name of the game regardless of the strength of our feelings about this issue.
It seems to me the group must resolve the issue of whether to involve 'consumers or farmers' in policy decisions before it can move to how to do this. May we consider the consequences of a) involving this segment of society, and b) not involving them? Putting on my qualitative research hat, I feel that there are threads emerging in this conversation that fall under either scenario. If we decide to involve them then we move onto how.
I personally vote to involve them. As to how, radio and social groups have been suggested as channels with extension as facilitators. There were more suggestions in the dialogue too. The channels may vary by location. Then the issue for the 'public' to consider becomes primary. Usually people get most interested in something concrete and personal. It will come down to the type of GE or biotechnology application put on the plate for consideration. This is likely to vary from country to country and even region to region within a country. However, the ground rules for presenting the issue could be similar.
Please take my suggestions/comments as just that. I have no personal experience working in developing nations. My experience is within the US with rural populations.
J. Lynne Brown
Associate Professor, Food Science
Penn State University
205 A Borland
University Park, PA 16802
email f9a (at) psu.edu