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Government response to Commons Committee report on genetic techniques for crop improvement endorses further public dialogue

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The Government response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on 'Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution', was published on 21st October 2015.

The Committee took evidence from Sir Roland Jackson, Sciencewise Chair, as well as drawing on the Sciencewise review of past public dialogue exercises related to GM.  The Government response refers to these sources as well as to more recent Sciencewise-supported public dialogue projects.

The Government response does not explicitly accept all the Committee's recommendations for new initiatives with Sciencewise. However, there is strong endorsement for future public dialogue and for the Sciencewise role.

In response to the Committee's recommendation "that the Government give greater consideration to the value that participatory processes might contribute to its own treatment of risk and uncertainty in policy development", the Government response states:

Para 22. "The Government is committed to open policy making as set out in the Civil Service Reform plan. To support this and facilitate public involvement in the development of policy around emerging technologies and innovative or cutting edge science, the Government supports a public engagement programme that since 2004 has included Sciencewise. Sciencewise is a national resource that supports public bodies to commission and use public dialogue to inform their science and technology policies. Through the Sciencewise programme a number of deliberative dialogues have explored public views on agri-science issues including food production and food security."

In response to the Committee's recommendation "that the Government work with the National Academies, in collaboration with Sciencewise, to develop a new online information ‘hub’ covering emerging topics in science and technology", the Government response states:

Para 26. "Government already works closely with a variety of stakeholders including the National Academies, Sciencewise and others to improve public understanding of emerging topics in science and technology through a range of activities including on-line channels. At this time we do not believe that there would be significant additional value in creating an online hub, bearing in mind also that it would require extra resources at a time when public expenditure is necessarily under tight control."

In response to the Committee's recommendation "that the Government renew its support for Sciencewise and commit to stable or uplifted funding over the next five years", the Government response states:

Para 29. "The Sciencewise deliberative dialogue programme is part of a wider government public engagement programme and future funding for the programme will be considered as part of the Spending Review. It would be inappropriate to prejudge the Spending Review outcome."

The Committee's recommended "that the Government use the current project as a springboard to a more substantial public dialogue on the future of the UK food system. This should be on a similar scale to the 2003 ‘GM Nation’ debate, but should draw upon the lessons learned from that exercise". The 'lessons learned' are taken from the Sciencewise briefing on this topic, and the 'current project' is the Sciencewise supported dialogue by Which? and Government Office for Science (GO-Science), which  has been completed and will be reporting soon.

The Government response states that:

Para 30. "The Government recognises the need for dialogue on the challenges and opportunities facing the UK farming and food sector, and that this must include a consideration of what science and technology can contribute. The Government also accepts that it has a role in helping to further such dialogue, although Government-led initiatives may not be the only or most valuable way forward, and it is important to recognise that all stakeholders have to play their part to enable a successful dialogue in whatever form it is undertaken. This is perhaps especially the case when discussion focuses on the use of new technologies. The GM example has shown the difficulty of achieving an informed and balanced debate of the risks, benefits and values involved, and the risk that polarised attitudes among key stakeholders can prevent a meaningful discourse.

Para 31. "In practice, various initiatives are already in hand or being considered that will provide opportunities for dialogue on the future of the UK food system. They include:

•    Food and Farming Strategy: since the Committee issued its report Defra has initiated work to establish a long-term strategy for UK food and farming. Several engagement events are planned that will enable stakeholders to contribute their thinking on the shape and direction of the strategy.

•    Global Food Security Programme (GFSP4 ): having previously undertaken work to better understand public views on food security issues, the GFSP is planning to establish, with the support of Sciencewise, a large-scale citizen’s panel to engage on its future activities.

•    Food Standards Agency (FSA): as part of its strategic plan, the FSA will be taking forward a public dialogue on ‘Our Food Future’, to explore the future of the global and UK food system to 2025. This will include structured consumer engagement, an interdisciplinary conference in February 2016 and a public engagement project with partners such as the Wellcome Trust and Which? It will aim in particular to explore the effect of global changes to the food system on the UK consumer, and how the food ‘ecosystem’ might look for a stable transition, identifying any associated issues, risks and opportunities for consumers.

Para 32. "Taken overall, the Government believes that alongside any complementary activities, the above will provide for a significant amount of productive dialogue of the type recommended by the Committee."

As well as the Global Food Security Citizens' Panel being developed with Sciencewise support, the FSA dialogue is also supported by Sciencewise.

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. 'Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution: Government Response to the Committee's Fifth Report of Session 2014-15'. HC 519.

The Committee's report was first published on 26 February 2015 (see Roland Jackson's blog on 26 February, and the Impacts Summary for February - April 2015).

See related project page: Global food security public panel, UK food system challenges