GeneWatch PR: New research on safety assessment of GM crops sheds light on risk controversies

Embargoed until Wednesday 29th September 1999

People with very different perspectives – even on issues as controversial as genetically modified crops – can in fact participate in constructive discussion and help design regulatory risk appraisal.

This is demonstrated in a major new report – Rethinking Risk: A pilot multi-criteria mapping of a genetically modified crop in agricultural systems in the UK – researched by Andy Stirling, of SPRU at the University of Sussex, and by Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK. Their work has been funded by Unilever.

Twelve specialists – including highly placed government advisors, biotechnologists, and representatives of the food industry and public interest groups – working with Stirling and Mayer together helped to create a "map" of the debate surrounding GM crops.

The new technique – known as ‘multi-criteria mapping’ – is based on an approach well-used in areas like energy and land use planning but – until now – has not been applied to the GM crops issue in the UK. Instead of asserting a single ‘right’ (or ‘wrong’) answer, the new method highlights the uncertainties and the reasons for disagreement, and draws a ‘map’ of the assumptions under which different options look ‘best’.

"Multi-criteria mapping puts the participants in the driving seat," explains Dr Andy Stirling, a research fellow at SPRU. "They decide the criteria, score the performance of the various options and rate the importance of each criterion. At the end you see how the options perform relative to one another and why. It’s a very transparent process".

The main findings of the report include:

  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo: all the participants judged conventional intensive cultivation to be performing poorly.
  • The organic option performing relatively well across all perspectives, not only under environmental criteria (where it performed unequivocally well), but also more broadly.
  • Participants largely agreed that a voluntary controls regime for GM crops would perform worse than other regulatory approaches.

Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch’s Director, concludes: "It was very striking how the findings reflected the debate about GM crops in the UK today in a way that conventional risk assessments do not. This feature could be of great benefit to a decision maker".

Unilever sees this study as another useful contribution to the development of methods to help give greater focus to the societal and citizen aspects of consumer needs in business decision making. "It is a valuable result of our ongoing co-operation with the Green Alliance and one which we are confident will assist the gm debate and eventually lead to improved consumer understanding of the issues," says Christine Drury, of Unilever.

The report also identified several features of multi-criteria mapping which could be of benefit when looking at any risk issue:

  • It works well even in a hotly disputed controversy
  • It brings in a broad range of perspectives
  • Its transparency helps build trust
  • It highlights areas of both disagreement and agreement
  • It takes account of difficult uncertainties

"Rather than trying to decide whether one thing – for example a GM crop – is safe or not, multi-criteria mapping compares and contrasts a range of different options. You get a more complete picture," says Dr Stirling.

"It shows that difficult policy choices on risk are not just about ‘sound science’ – they are about people’s values and interests as well. If regulation is not clear about this, then the unproductive conflict will continue," he adds.

- ends -

Further Information:

Please contact:
Andy Stirling, SPRU, University of Sussex
Tel: + 44 (0)1273 877118

Sue Mayer, GeneWatch UK
Tel: +44 (0)1298 871898
Fax: +44 (0)1298 872531

Notes to Editors:

  1. A. Stirling, S. Mayer, ‘Rethinking Risk: A pilot multi-criteria mapping of a genetically modified crop in agricultural systems in the UK’, SPRU, September 1999. Available from SPRU publications office: Tel: 01273 686758, E-mail: Price: £50 (£10 – not-for-profit organisations).
    A copy of the report abstract and commentary is available free of charge at
  2. How does multi-criteria mapping work?
    • First, participants choose "options" or alternative scenarios – in this case, six ways that oilseed rape might be grown on farms in the UK. The six basic options in this exercise were organic agriculture, integrated pest management and conventional agriculture – all without GM crops – and three GM options: incorporating either segregation and labelling of the GM produce, post-release monitoring or voluntary controls on areas of cultivation.
    • Next, participants list their "criteria": all the things they would want to take into account in order to evaluate how best to fulfil a particular objective – in this case, the growing of oilseed rape.
    • In the next step, participants judge how well the options perform in the light of each evaluation criterion – the "scoring" stage.
    • The final step is to add "weightings": participants are asked to look at the criteria (and the scores of the various options), and assign a number to reflect their relative importance.
    • The end result is a set of "rankings", which show how the different options perform under appraisals conducted from different perspectives.
  3. Who participated?
    • The twelve individuals recruited for this study reflected a wide range of interests and perspectives from strongly favourable to strongly opposed to GM strategies. Four worked in agriculture, plant biotechnology or the food industry. Two were academic scientists and two were government safety advisors. Four others represented leading religious and public interest groups.
  4. Unilever has been working with the environmental charity Green Alliance for a number of years. This co-operation has led to regular exchange of information and views and to working on projects of significant mutual interest. March 1997 saw the publication of "Uncertain World", a study by the CSEC unit at Lancaster University which identified the societal context for GM in the UK and set out the reasons for the then largely latent consumer concerns about GM use in Food.
    This present study by SPRU at Sussex University is a direct result of that work since it was clear that there was a need to find ways to understand and cope with the hugely diverse nature of concerns. Co-operation between Unilever and the Green Alliance made it possible for the diverse interests to be well represented in this pilot study.

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