How to ‘public consultation’ – what Defra should have done

February 10, 2021 by Pat Thomas

**UPDATE 25 February: See bottom of page for the link to the parliamentary question, tabled by Caroline Lucas, MP asking why Defra has still not answered our complaint**


On January 7th the UK government launched a 10-week public consultation into the deregulation of plants and animals produced using a new genetic engineering technology called gene editing.

The timing couldn’t have been worse, coming, as it did, within days of the UK exiting the European Union and in the middle of a global pandemic, when many families are juggling work (or the loss of work), home schooling and, for some, illness and bereavement. Many will feel they have very little bandwidth available to devote thought and time to such a complex subject.

But the real problems with the consultation go much deeper.

In theory a public consultation can be a good thing. It can invite contributions from those who are too often excluded from the debate. It is an opportunity to demonstrate democratic process. It can show us what the government knows and where the gaps in its knowledge are.

This consultation is not like that. The haste and lack of preparation with which it was launched is obvious in its tone and text and timing. It prejudges, it is inaccessible and it shows disdain for average citizens.

Which is why we have submitted a complaint to Defra, the Cabinet Office, individual Ministers and senior civil servants.

Rules? What rules?

Our complaint lists the multiple ways in which the consultation is not being conducted in line with Cabinet Office Consultation Principles.

Perhaps the most important of these Principles states that: “Consultations should have a purpose. Do not consult for the sake of it” and that government should “not ask questions about issues on which you have already formed a final view”.

The government has formed a final view.

In his first public speech as Prime Minister (and in subsequent speeches in the following days) Boris Johnson stated that one of his priorities was to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules.”

Representatives of the UK government, including George Eustice, have stated on several occasions in the media that it is the government’s intention to overturn the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling on the regulation of genome editing, which made it clear that, both scientifically and legally, gene editing is the same as genetic engineering and that gene-edited crops and animals are genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Cabinet Office Principles also state: “Consultations should be informative. Give enough information to ensure that those consulted understand the issues and can give informed responses” and should “Include validated impact assessments of the costs and benefits of the options being considered when possible

The information provided in the consultation document is prejudicial rather than informative and understandable and does not include any validated cost/benefit/impact assessment.

It is notable that the consultation document itself – which makes sweeping statements about gene editing being the same as traditional breeding or what could happen in nature – contains no references, scientific or otherwise.

A scattergun approach

Cabinet Office principles make it clear that consultations should be “easy to understand and easy to answer.” They also state: “Consultations should be targeted. Consider the full range of people, business and voluntary bodies affected by the policy, and whether representative groups exist. Consider targeting specific groups if appropriate.”  

This consultation is not easy to understand. It takes a scattergun approach to eliciting views from a wide range of individuals, but its language is opaque, even geeky, tending towards encouraging specialist opinion and putting off the general public. In particular, the consultation demands a level of evidence (including references) that is not only inappropriate for a public consultation but indicates a contempt for those who have views but perhaps not the wherewithal to access scientific papers – or indeed those who wish to express values-based views.

In particular, Part 2 of the consultation is a highly technical focus on genetically engineered crops, farmed animals, human food, human and veterinary medicines, animal feed and other “unspecified sectors”. It certainly doesn’t belong in a lay public consultation but, more perilously, its underlying purpose appears to be to find a way to deregulate other forms and other uses of genetic engineering.

It is notable that we have come across researchers working in this area who find the entire consultation heavy going and/or who have failed to understand what it is actually about.

We have yet to receive a response from Defra Minister George Eustice or from the Defra Permanent Secretary Tamara Finkelstein, or from the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm. Their silence is disappointing but unsurprising..

While we wait, we are composing our own response to the consultation and helping and encouraging others, who wish to, to do the same. But we have also had time to contemplate what could have been done differently.

Wanted – serious engagement

In his PR blitz for the consultation, Defra Chief Scientist Gideon Henderson states: “The last time we had an extensive public discussion was in the 1990s.” The fact that Defra can’t even get this salient detail right is worrying.

The last UK public enquiry into GM was the ‘GM Nation’ enquiry, conducted in the summer of 2003. It concluded there were no public or environmental benefits from genetically engineered crops and no economic benefits for UK Plc.

Although there were concerns, even then, that the wider public was not being properly engaged and that the process had other flaws, the experience of GM Nation provides a useful framework for how Defra could proceed, if it was really serious about a public consultation.

Such a framework is already being pursued in Norway where a public committee has recently been appointed to conduct a broad professional review of the technological status and regulatory frameworks, the need for independent research, possible new risk aspects and ethical dilemmas around gene editing. Rather than a hasty 10 week consultation, the Norwegian panel is in the midst of an 18-month long review.

In the Norwegian system it’s not just laboratory science – and certainly not the shifting sands of pseudo-scientific concepts like “precision breeding” and “nature identical” – that underpins regulatory decision-making. The process also encompasses five interconnected ’pillars’ in the GMO debate: health, environment, ethics, sustainability and economics.

The need for gene-edited organisms and how these may or may not be regulated must be assessed in this wider context.

What Defra should have done

This kind of independent, broad and democratic assessment involving civil society, individuals representing a range of special interests and expertise and members of the public, should have taken place before any public consultation on regulatory matters.

In our communications to George Eustice, exchanges with Defra and also with the National Food Strategy this is what we have suggested – though it has fallen largely on deaf ears.

We maintain, however there is a need to develop an exercise akin to the GM Nation debate and that this should include:

  • A UK wide enquiry – not just in England as the current consultation is.
  • An independently assessed review of the science and safety aspects.
  • An independent review of the social and ethical as well as the economic (including trade) aspects. This would need to include a consideration of different scenarios for UK agriculture.
  • An independent review of regulatory frameworks for transparency, labelling and co-existence with other agricultural approaches.
  • Public discussion events (both government, stakeholder and grassroots initiated and organised) which would be recorded and reported in a transparent manner.

The results of this kind or process could usefully lead to a Green Paper, in which the government sets out its proposals for the regulatory system, including environment and food safety aspects,  market transparency and co-existence.

To make this happen would require a collective effort from civil society. That’s a difficult ask when so much of civil society – particularly those groups focussed on food and farming – has become fragmented and territorial. In addition, as our survey last year revealed, nearly half of the responding organisations – some of them very well-known and well-funded – have no official position on genome editing technologies. That’s a barrier to effective action.

But we also need a government less wrapped up in ideology and less beholding to – and bewitched by– the biotech industry.

All indications are that the government saw this consultation as a quick win. Instead it has served to deepen longstanding divides in an already difficult conversation. Since we have spent the last several years trying to move away from such divisions we find this particularly frustrating.

There is a way forward.

With the GM Nation enquiry, the UK began a process of democratic, scientific and values-based dialogue. This dialogue was quickly abandoned when it showed that consumers were just not interested in genetically engineered foods and that genetically engineered crops didn’t live up to their big promises. Would the dialogue be different with so-called ‘new’ gene edited crops and animals? We dare the government to find out.

Such a dialogue requires intelligent government, responsive government, government with vision, government that trusts its citizens. We double dare that government to show itself.


UPDATE: On February 22 Caroline Lucas, MP tabled a parliamentary question, to Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice has not responded to our serious complaint.

Some news coverage of our complaint

Westminster ‘breaking own rules’ with genetically modified food consultation

GM food charity accuses Defra consultation of bias