May 25, 2022 by Staff Reporter
Today, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill gets its first reading in the House of Commons. As we await what is widely anticipated to be a deregulatory free-for-all, Beyond GM can reveal the breathtaking lengths the government has gone to in order to ignore public opinion on genetically engineered organisms in farming and the wider food chain.
Documents released by Defra, following a Freedom of Information request by Beyond GM, highlight the extent to which Defra is ignoring and seeking to misrepresent citizens and civil society organisations in the push to deregulate genetic engineering technologies.
In January 2021 Defra undertook a Public Consultation on The Regulation of Genetic Technologies. Our concerns, shared by others, were that the consultation was inadequate and biased, but also broke Cabinet Office Principles on consultations.
These concerns intensified when Defra’s summary report on the consultation revealed that the Department had removed more than half (52%) of all the responses received from its official analysis on the basis that they were linked to campaign organisations.
Even with this outrageous culling of responses, overall 85% of responses to the consultation expressed a desire to see crops, animal and food products produced using gene editing regulated in the same way as other GMOs.
This majority view was ignored by Defra and the government, which chose to focus instead on the less than 1% of responses from vested interests that supported their deregulation agenda.
The original FOI request, which focused on the process around the Defra public consultation and the government’s deregulation agenda, was quite broad and several requests were denied on the grounds that:
“Release of the information requested would risk inhibiting officials and Ministers from having full, frank and open discussions as part of the process of formulating policy, particularly if they felt that speculative information relating to live policy issues would be released before final decisions were made on those issues.”
The cache of FOI documents received by BGM includes official emails and documents such as training slides, as well as the existence of an internal Defra process described as ‘coding’, in which written responses received during the consultation are analysed by Defra personnel, and in some case specially recruited staff, to determine how some responses could be downgraded or removed from the final analysis and Consultation report.
By now we would have expected Defra to make this cache public. However, as of today’s date, it has yet to publish these FOI releases, and has not responded to a request for them to be published, even though it has a duty to do so.
We are, therefore, making them public.
In working our way through a large and interesting stack of documents, we found that it is clear that:
Coding can be constructively used in consultation analysis to identify and classify common themes across wide-ranging consultations. But using it to group responses into a ‘campaign’ classification and mark these for removal from the final analysis is, in our view, an unacceptable manipulation of the consultation process.
Even if a response has been written and sent by an individual, having conducted their own reading and research of such resources – that response was effectively ‘downgraded’, having been coded as part of a campaign for using similar words or phrases.
In our communication with Defra we have been told that removing campaign responses is common. This may be so. Indeed, there are recommendations in this FOI cache to “share the NFS [National Food Strategy] work as an example for managing campaign responses”.
As we await the publication of the government white paper response to the National Food Strategy, this raises further serious questions about how the government deals with the weight of public opinion.
It gets worse. It is notable that while pro-GM groups often repeat and copy each other’s language, nowhere in these FOI documents does Defra discuss how to handle ‘stock’ or campaign responses linked to such groups. Only those that raised questions and objections to deregulation were ‘coded’ out of the analysis.
This included responses that used material, or could be linked to the material, from:
Whatever justification might be claimed for this exclusion process is undermined by the haphazard, making-it-up-as-they-go along approach revealed in the documents we have seen.
The cache also makes clear that where there was doubt, Defra tended towards coding responses as campaigns: “I had tagged a couple as ‘non campaign’ but these are the ones that you flagged as being very customised, I’m happy to keep them as a campaign as they are largely based on them.”
One document gave some clue to the attitudes that underpin this approach:
“It is important to keep in mind that public consultations are not necessarily representative of the wider population. Since anyone can submit their views, individuals and organisations who are more able and willing to respond are more likely to participate.”
The Defra public consultation was highly technical and difficult to negotiate and one of civil society’s important roles is acting as a bridge between citizens and the government and helping citizens to negotiate the often difficult terrain of government processes.
If the process of public consultation is to have any shred of legitimacy it must be accompanied by transparency, even-handedness and clear, published criteria. But at no point did Defra warn citizens that their view would be discounted if they used or even rephrased information from civil society groups.
As Defra moves through the steps of delivering on the government’s deregulation agenda, it is worth considering the toxic legacy it has inherited with regard to civil society and citizens.
Owen Paterson, Defra Secretary in 2015, called civil society a ‘green blob’. In so doing he demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the function of civil society and the differences between individual NGOs. George Eustice’s comments at last year’s Oxford Farming conference equating civil society with lobby groups showed little has changed.
The Bill that will be laid before Parliament today deals with an important and powerful technology that invokes very mixed responses amongst people. These differences should not be swept under the carpet or be subjected to attempts to manipulate them out of existence.
Genetic engineering technologies require regulation that is responsive to public concerns and interests, that is transparent, and that engages citizens in a respectful manner that can be trusted.
In the UK we are still a long way from that goal.