By Lawrence Woodward, Director of Elm Farm Research Centre – also see credits at end of article. It is not often that opinion in a developed society splits profoundly. It happens on some issues of great significance but rarely more than once or twice in a decade or so. The debate over genetic engineering in agriculture is not one of these issues. Society is not split – there are pockets of bewilderment, some indifference and there is some pro-GM opinion – but by and large public feeling seems to be more or less anti.
Clearly this is not so for individual environmentalists and farmers – although possibly amongst the latter group there is a large number who have a fatalistic “que sera, sera” sort of attitude. It is very definitely not the case with government, with research bodies, with industry, with farming organisations, environmental and consumer groups and other NGOs. There are fundamental differences of opinion to be found here: much of it revolving around different perceptions of risk and the need for precaution.
The fact that there is so little clear scientific evidence in the public domain on these questions sharpens the differences. All sides can find something to support their case and this fuels the much-needed debate. This can be seen from the reports coming from the US – for example the reports from the NCFAP and the USDA which appear to flatly contradict each other. The results from the FSE trials here in the UK are more likely to inflame the dispute than deliver clarity.