Why we need a new forum for the public debate on biotechnology

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It is astonishing that a democratic society such as Brazil has been unable to decide, after more than five years of intense debate, whether it is going to embrace the genetic modification of crops as part of its overall social and economic development programme.

Brazilians are, in fact, deeply polarized over the issue — as are the people of many developed countries, such as the United Kingdom. The result is that although Brazil is now the world’s largest exporter — and the second largest producer — of soybeans, Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant variety is planted on only four per cent of the land devoted to the crop.

The issue has generated plenty of activity in the courts. In 1998 the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio) decided to issue a licence for the commercial release of GM soybeans, a move that environmental organisations including Greenpeace, and consumers’ rights advocates such as Idec, challenged in court. A final decision is still pending.

The debate over GM has had political circles buzzing, too. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has exceptionally allowed the marketing of illicitly grown GM soybeans by means of presidential decrees (medidas provisórias). More recently, Lula’s administration has come forward with a revamped bill on biosafety intended to replace an outdated law from 1995. The bill has yet to go through the Senate floor.

But the debate has never grown beyond the simplistic pro- or anti- stage. A number of journalists have been partly responsible for this polarisation by focusing on the views of the groups in opposition. But they could, in principle at least, rectify the situation by supporting informed debate instead.
At the moment, however, it is all following a predictable pattern. In one corner, the scientific and political establishment appears to be convinced that biotech is a necessary condition for development. In the opposite corner, environmental groups and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can still rely on a receptive audience for their anti-GM statements. And in doing so, they are spreading mistrust towards biotech among the general public, who now associate transgenic food with the breeding of monsters by genetic engineers.

A December 2002 national poll conducted by Ibope with 2000 interviewees revealed that 37 per cent of them had never heard of transgenic foods. Nonetheless, 71 per cent would prefer not to consume them just in case. It seems that just the word ‘transgenic’ is enough to trigger a negative reaction. As a result, 92 per cent of the people polled declared that GM foods should be labeled. The survey was paid for by an NGO alliance called Campaign for a GMO-Free Brazil.

Some have tried to explain this kind of response by blaming it on the ignorance of the Brazilian public, pointing out that they are simply rejecting what they don’t understand. But the issue can’t be so easily dismissed. Countless public relations and ad campaigns have been launched by biotech companies, but all have failed to alter the anti-GM landscape. Apparently, the cause goes beyond a mere lack of information.

One major reason for the failure to resolve the debate is the way the opposing campaigns concentrate on the polarisation itself. In doing so, they try to drag ordinary citizens and journalists into one or the other of the camps: either pro-biotech, and therefore on the side of humankind and progress, or anti. There is no room for intermediate positions here.

Thus, to the researchers and industry representatives working with GM crops and foods, even just admitting doubts about GMs automatically identifies the individual as a warrior of the dark side, someone who prevents scientists from eliminating humankind’s greatest burden, famine.

And environmental activists have responded with equal fierceness to any journalists who have tried to develop an independent and science-based view of biosafety issues, basing their reports on peer-reviewed research, not received ideas about scientific progress.

Some of us journalists, for example, have wondered whether the critics’ tactic of referring to vague theoretical risks — such as the potential damage to human health — is not primarily intended as a cover for ethical objections to biotech. We have questioned whether it is not misleading to speak in general terms of biotech-induced risks, as if all GM products involve similar risks.

The pro- and anti-GM positions have, in fact, crystallised around attitudes so extreme I would label them ‘fundamentalist’. There are many ways of being a fundamentalist, and one of them is being simplistically pro- or anti-science. The solution is not to encourage a ‘holy war’ between the two (which many a reporter ends up doing). Rather, it means committing to the idea of an enlightened public sphere, in which each citizen thinks and decides with his or her own mind using the maximum amount of reliable information available.

It is time to reinstate a common ground in which a free and renewed debate can take place — one in which stakeholders mindful of independence and tolerance will start to weigh facts, interpretations and arguments based on their own intrinsic value, not their origin.

Leaders of the global science community should take steps to generate and gather reliable information about biotechnologies, building experiments similar to the field-scale ones carried out in the United Kingdom, but spread over a wider range of natural, cultural and socioeconomic environments. The only condition would be for them not to have been prominently engaged in campaigning either in favour or against biotechnology.

The information generated by such independent studies would then have to be conveyed to the general public in each country, preferably through consensus conferences or open gatherings, in order to reach out to ordinary people. A recent example is the British initiative to consult with the public, ‘GM Nation?’,  whose successes and shortcomings should now be available to evaluate.

Another vital task is to ensure that the information gets to those in the position of turning opinions and judgments into social facts, such as lawmakers and judges. The experience of the US Einstein Institute for Science, Health & the Courts (EINSHAC) — a voluntary organization that makes the findings of the genetic sciences, neuroscience and environmental science accessible to the judicial system — might be of use here.

Since many of us – social or natural scientists and journalists — had research training in the past, we are left with doing what we have been educated to do: to learn from experience, to ask new questions or rephrase them in a more productive way, and above all to seek unexpected and refreshing answers. Journalists alone would not be able to open up this new terrain, which might some day become neutral and common ground. But they can surely take a few steps in this direction — to begin with, by avoiding sources who cannot bring anything new to the debate.

Are there real scientists out there who refuse the role of pro-biotech campaigners? Maybe we should start looking harder for experts who don’t have an axe to grind. One might even be able to find people in and around NGOs who are willing to back up their claims with reliable and published data. Above all, we journalists ought to keep pointing out that no institution — at least in my country — is seriously engaged in dismantling the polarization trap in which we now find ourselves.

If the present situation remains unchallenged, there will be only room for the persistent mockery of a dialogue which, at least in Brazil, has brought biotech into a legal and regulatory dead end.

This article was commissioned for the Spanish and Portuguese versions of the e-guide to science communication.