GENTECH archive



Date: Thu, 20 May 1999 10:55:30 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Citizens Panel on Gene-Modified Food (Loka Alert 6:2)


Friends & Colleagues:

      This is one in an occasional series on the democratic politics of
research, science, and technology issued free of charge by the nonprofit
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      IN THIS LOKA ALERT:  Science and technology policy in the United
States is customarily decided without input from everyday citizens who
will be affected.  In contrast, a number of other nations have pioneered
processes for empowering representative lay citizens to participate
constructively in such policy deliberations.  This Loka Alert presents
excerpts from a first-hand account, prepared by Loka advisory board member
Phil Bereano, of a recent Danish "Citizen Consensus Conference" on the
topic of genetically engineered foods. Phil's fascinating report
represents the first blow-by-blow description available in the English
language of a participatory Danish consensus conference.

     Cheers to all,
     Dick Sclove, Research Director, The Loka Institute
     E-mail <>, Web <>
     P.O. Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004, USA


1. News Update: AAAS Symposium Endorses Loka Institute Agenda.... (1 page)

2. Report on Danish "Citizen Consensus Conference" on Genetically
Engineered Foods, by Phil Bereano...................... (4-1/2 pages)

3. Internships at the Loka Institute........................ (1 paragraph)

4. About the Loka Institute.................................... (2/3 page)


                             (1) News Update


     In September 1998 the House Science Committee of the U.S. Congress
issued a document, entitled "Unlocking Our Future," that proposes a post-
Cold War U.S. science and technology policy.  Loka Institute Research
Director, Dr. Richard Sclove, sharply criticized the House document in an
October 1998 _Chronicle of Higher Education_ essay (available on the Web
at <>).

     This past December Sclove was one of five plenary speakers invited to
address 150 participants in a day-long symposium on the House science
policy study.  The symposium was organized in Washington, DC by the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  AAAS has now
issued a report summarizing "the sense of the discussions at the

     One of the six recommendations in the AAAS report essentially
endorses two of the Loka Institute's key recommendations for democratizing
U.S. science and technology policies.  This is an important endorsement
from an audience composed primarily of mainstream science-and-technology
policy practitioners.  Quoting from p. 19 of the AAAS report:


"The House Science Committee is to be commended for its attempts to reach
out beyond its boundaries for views on the issues under consideration.
Nevertheless, it heard public testimony mainly from `the ususal suspects,'
traditional science policy constituencies who represent the performers for
R&D.  Congress should seek input from a broader segment of the general
public on science and science policy matters, to better reflect our
nation's democratic process."

o  "Decisions on scientific and technical issues should incorporate input
from affected communities and other members of the public, as many
European nations have done."[2]

o  "Congress should examine alternative, community-based forms of
research.  Community-based research involves affected local communities in
setting the research agenda and also in performing the research, and has
proved successful in epidemiological and pollution research on local


     [1].  The full title of the AAAS Symposium report is _Science &
Technology for the Nation: Issues and Priorities for the 106th Congress:
Views from the Science & Technology Community on the House Science
Committee's Report "Unlocking Our Future"_ (Washington, DC: AAAS, March
1999).  This report is available from the Directorate for Science & Policy
Programs, AAAS, 1200 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20005, USA;
tel. +1-202-326-6600; fax +1-202-289-4950; E-mail

     [2].  On European processes for involving everyday citizens in
science and technology policy decisions, see the Bereano essay in this
Loka Alert (below).

     [3].  On community-based research, see the Loka Institute's Community
Research Network Web page at <>.



                          by Phil Bereano

     [Editor's Introduction: In April 1997 the Loka Institute and several
institutional partners organized the first participatory Citizen's Panel
ever held in the United States for deliberating on complex, controversial
issues in science and technology policy. Modeled on a Danish-style
"consensus conference," the topic of our Citizens Panel was
"Telecommunications and the Future of Democracy" (see:
<>).  Citizens Panels have now been
organized about 35 times in 12 different nations, and the process
continues to make headway.  (For a new, comprehensive list of consensus
conferences organized worldwide, see

     [Below we reproduce excerpts from a first-hand account of a recent
Danish "Citizen Consensus Conference" on the topic of genetically
engineered foods.  This report represents the first blow-by-blow
description and evaluation in the English language of a participatory
Danish consensus conference.  THE UNABRIDGED, 10-PAGE REPORT BY PHIL

     [The lucidity, detail, and nuance of the lay panel judgments
summarized in Bereano's report, below, demonstrate convincingly -- yet
again -- that well-structured participatory processes eliminate any
rational justification for continuing the primitive practice of excluding
everyday citizens from publically significant science and technology

     [Author Phil Bereano (E-mail <>; Web
<>) is a
professor in the Department of Technical Communication at the University
of Washington in Seattle and a noted biotechnology critic.  He is a member
of the Loka Institute's National Advisor Board, and serves on the board of
directors of the Council for Responsible Genetics and of the American
Civil Liberties Union.]

 Excerpts from a Report on the Danish "Citizen Consensus Conference" on
Genetically Engineered Foods, March 12-15,1999

                              by Phil Bereano


     The Danish Board of Technology, a quasi-independent agency of the
State, and the originator of the "consensus conference" concept, held such
a process this spring to produce a citizen-based assessment of genetically
engineered foods.  The agency has held 18 of these events in the past 12
years.  (The process is described in Richard Sclove, "Town Meetings on
Technology," published originally in the journal _Technology Review_ and
posted at <>.  See also the Danish
Board of Technology's web page at <>).
The following report is based on my observations as an attendee, utilizing
informal translation services supplied by a number of gracious Danish

     In two earlier weekends, the panel of 14 citizens, selected to be
reflective of the Danish population (gender, age, rural/urban, occupation,
etc.), met for preparatory stages of the process.  A planning committee
established by the Board selected readings and other educational materials
for the citizens, in order to begin to educate them on the subject matter
and the issues.  This planning group also selected a group of experts and
stakeholders, representing different points of view on the issues.  In
this conference experts represented the biotech industry, several research
organizations (with expertise in socio-economic impact analysis as well as
those with expertise in biotechnology), government agencies
(environmental, consumer affairs, etc.), Greenpeace, and NOAH (an
organization of Danish scientists committed to social responsibility). The
citizen panel, interacting with the planning group, had opportunities to
augment both the selection of experts and the education materials. The
moderator for the lay panel was from a consulting firm and is also a
well-known writer and theater director.

The Dialogue

     This weekend began Friday with sessions in which each of the experts
made a 15-20 minute presentation to the citizens' panel.  The setting was
extremely pleasant -- a converted warehouse facility, light and airy, with
visually interesting spaces for meeting and social interaction.  A
audience of perhaps 150 people was present; coffee breaks, a luncheon and
the like provided numerous opportunities for informal exchanges.

     The citizens, working with the planing group, had come up beforehand
with 10 major questions (each subdivided into more detailed inquiries) for
the experts to address; each expert was asked specifically to focus on 1
or 2 of these....

     [Editor's note: Here Phil Bereano's unabridged report summarizes the
participating experts' diverse responses to the questions posed by the
Danish lay panel.  See <>]

Production of the Lay Panel's Report

     On Monday morning the 15th the written report, prepared the preceding
day by the lay panel members, was presented and read section by section by
the lay panelists themselves.  (Their report has been published in English
on the Danish Board of Technology's Website at
<>)  In sum, it was fairly
balanced, but critical of the technology.  One of the things of interest
to me was the ability of the lay people to go beyond what was, in my
opinion [(Editor's note): as Phil Bereano indicates in his unabridged
report], in some respects an unbalanced expert presentation and

     While falling short of calling for a moratorium, the lay panel did
advocate strict regulation and control of the genetic engineering of
foodstuffs.  Within this overall position, they called specifically for
broad labeling requirements so that consumer choices are guaranteed, and
also for public regulation over monopolies in the field.  This latter
point relates to their concerns about the patenting of genetic

     In particular, the lay panel called for an international convention
to allow the Third World to use patented plants and plant materials and a
legal rule which would categorize unworked patents as abandoned.  While
declaring that the current genetic engineering of food offers no consumer
benefits, the panel could not reject the possibility that the technology
might develop in this direction.  It called for the clear separation and
the protection of organic farming from farming that uses genetically
engineered plants, as well as the maintenance of seed banks which would
preserve diverse food plants.

     Calling for more public funding which would increase the competence
of government authorities to oversee this technology, the panel also
supported the establishment of an insurance fund, supported by industry
contributions, which would assure that liability for accidents, etc. would
result in compensation.

     The lay panel understood that the disagreements among experts were
ideological as well as technical.  Locating the technology within a real
social milieu, the panel asked for the establishment of an ethical
committee whose deliberations would receive weight equal to that given to
technical considerations.  (In this context it is important to note that
the Danish notion of social ethics is not what exists in the U.S. --
private religiosity and the summing up of individualized ethical decisions
-- but is, instead, an independent concept which includes explicit group
or community values, such as social solidarity, social equity, and the
like.  It is a true appreciation of the fact that society is more than the
algebraic summation of the individuals which comprise it.)

     On some particular technical issues, the report expressed a concern
about "horizontal gene flow" (that is, the transfer of genetic
modifications into nearby plants), and wanted "refugia" to keep resistance
from developing.  ("Refugia" are pockets of genetically unmodified plants
that are used to preserve a population of insects that will remain
unadapted to genetic modifications introduced into a surrounding plant
crop).  It opposed the use of antibiotic markers and also the Terminator
gene ("Terminator" is a genetic modification that renders a plant sterile
so that its seeds can't be used to produce another crop).  In addressing
health risks, the citizens recognized that there is large measure of
uncertainty in our assessments; they were particularly concerned about
issues of nutrition, allergies, antibiotic resistance, and fertility.

     Regulatory oversight should be established for seven years and then
reviewed to see whether it should continue.  A case-by-case evaluation
should occur in order to sort out which information is relevant.  Public
control of the technology requires adequate resources, and that the
regulators be truly independent from the interested parties.  The citizens
advocated that both the companies and the independent state authorities
would make risk assessments and that the companies would have to pay fees
for the acceptance of their products, the money going to support pubic
research and education.  There were some feelings of consternation that
European Union (EU) regulations limit what many in Denmark would like to
see as more stringent liability and sanctions.  Therefore the panel called
upon the EU to allow national rules in regard to this technology.

     The government should issue new rules on pesticides and genetically
modified organisms, to truly insure that the levels of agrochemicals used
are lower.  And the growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
should not hinder other modes of agricultural production (specifically
organic) -- which suggests serious concern about Bt resistance and the use
of antibiotic markers.  ("Bt" is a natural, bacterially produced
insecticide that is harmless to higher animals and humans.)  While calling
for GMO research to include a focus on the needs of the Third World, the
panel specifically acknowledged that a larger production of food stuffs
will not solve the problems of the Third World.  A number of these
recommendations were couched in awkward language to the effect that the
lay panel "can't foreclose the possibility that" something beneficial
might eventuate.

     There were strong calls for labeling and adequate public information.
All genetically engineered food products should be labeled as such, and
the panel recognized that there was a big difference between the demands
of consumers and the European Union (EU) Directive.  Similarly, the lay
panel issued recommendations to stop technical monopolies (for example
that the patents on lifeforms should only exist for 5 years), similarly at
variance with EU law.

     As mentioned above, the lay panel noted that only very few benefits
for consumers are currently in the pipeline, but it could not reject the
possibility that such products would eventually be developed.  Hence it
did not call for a moratorium.

     There was considerable concern about protecting biodiversity, centers
of diversity, and local ecosystems.  Genetic modification must be balanced
with conservation.  The genetic modification of animals, especially, gives
rise to ethical issues (for example, regarding reproduction).  The lay
panel insisted that ethics and consumer perspectives must be folded into
decisionmaking about this technology.  Currently, ethics are not included
and are not given enough weight.  This concern should be reflected on all
levels of legal procedures, in a broad and continuous debate.  Thus, the
panel suggested the establishment of a genetics ethics committee which
would be proactive and take the initiative to assure that this debate
occurs (i.e., dialogue between companies and consumers), and that the
process would be part of the development of broad Danish food policies.

     The citizens accepted the position that the industry should have the
burden of proof to prove usefulness, and in this regard they favored a
utilitarian argument.  (But this was coupled with their desire to
stimulate ethical discussions.)

     The experts then had a chance to comment on the report in order to
eliminate ambiguities and assist the panel in reducing any possible
misunderstandings.  Some experts actually suggested ways in which the
panel could make its points more strongly.  [Note added by Phil Bereano:
The possibility of actual distortion of a lay panel's recommendations has
been raised in commentary on the Canadian Citizen's Conference held on
genetically engineered food at the same time.  Lay panelists there felt
that the media distorted their language, which suggests that not enough
attention was actually given to the drafting process.  (On the Canadian
conference, see <>).]

     A response to the report was offered by parliamentarian Jorgenson, a
Social Democrat who chairs the Danish Parliament's Committee on Food.  He
agreed that the broader social values, going beyond just objective risk
measures, should be considered.  And he understood that there were
specific problems, such as the use of antibiotic markers, which needed
attention.  He agreed with the panel that genetically modified foods
should be particularly regulated, and was very supportive of labeling. As
he  pointed out, choice is not limited just to the product one wishes to
buy but rightfully includes the process by which products are produced.
Unlike the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he understood that the role
of being a consumer is not necessarily devoid of ethical content (as the
phenomenon of consumer boycotts so obviously reminds us.)

     Parliamentarian Jorgenson was also very interested in the category of
animal feed, wondering whether meat could be sold as organic (free of
genetic modification) if the feed had been modified.  He also agreed that
research should be de-linked from the companies and be independent.  He
quickly disposed of claims that genetic engineering would automatically be
beneficial to the Third World by noting that as long as countries of the
North dumped their excesses, it is not clear that stimulating production
will benefit the countries of the South....

     [Editor's note: Here Phil Bereano's full report summarizes a diverse
and interesting range of audience reaction to the Danish lay panel report,
and offers Bereano's concluding reflections.  Phil's complete, 10-page
report is available on the Loka Institute Web site at

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