06 October 2000 - 08 October 2000

The new Luddites? International and national concerns about biotechnology and its true worth

Chair: Dr John Ashworth

(with the Royal Agricultural Society of England)

Over the weekend of 6-8 October we met at Ditchley, in partnership with the Royal Agricultural Society of England, to consider the key issues arising from the current debate about biotechnology, in particular as it affected genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and human and animal genomics.   We were conscious throughout of the gap between the speed at which the underlying science was advancing and the relatively slow pace at which public discussion and understanding of the implications was moving, largely, we judged, a result of the complex and morally challenging nature of the underlying ethical considerations.  

In a detailed look at GMOs we examined the reasons behind the difference in public attitudes in Europe, the USA and in certain developing countries.  In the UK, for example, public sentiment was such that it seemed to many of us unlikely that GM crops would be planted commercially for some considerable time. We recognised that this was a matter of some frustration among scientists who saw considerable benefits from recent advances in biotechnology and had expected these to be  warmly welcomed.  But the recent BSE experience, coupled with a wide ranging debate about the possible harmful effects of GM crops on human health as well as the environment, stimulated by NGOs and taken up by the press, had – justifiably or not – undermined public trust and confidence.  Before there could be moves towards regulation, trust and confidence would have to be restored.  By contrast we heard that in the USA GMOs were beginning to become a subject of discussion again.  But by and large, the US public had confidence in their regulators and had not so far called into question the safety of GMOs which had been grown and available for consumption for a number of years.  We had, however, a word of warning that public opinion in the USA was notoriously fickle.  A major health issue like BSE, or an incident of serious environmental damage, could change attitudes dramatically. 

Attitudes in developing countries, we were told, were heavily influenced by the potential of GMOs to increase the food supply and to decrease the use of expensive organophosphates.  These were cogent arguments and it was not surprising that developing countries did not see why this new technology should not be used by their farmers where there was a perceived benefit, even though developed countries did not themselves wish to plant GMOs.  The counter argument was made that although these views were perfectly understandable, the nature of the processes involved meant that GMO policy was a matter of international not regional concern.  If the developed countries became aware of some inherent danger from this technology, either to people or the environment, then they had a duty to try to prevent its exploitation. 

When considering popular acceptance of GMOs we were reminded that the allocation of risks and benefits was frequently unbalanced.  The benefits could accrue to the few while the risks might be borne by the many.  We heard that one of the problems facing biotech companies and farmers who wished to use GMO seeds in developed countries was that it was difficult to demonstrate a clear and immediate benefit to the average consumer who was already abundantly supplied with food.  The financial and environmental advantages of using less pesticides or organophosphates had not featured prominently in public debate and had in any case been rebutted by groups who argued against GMOs on wider environmental grounds or on grounds of principle.

We speculated that the next wave of GMO products might not relate to food production but to plants grown for medical purposes.  This, we thought, might help improve the image of GMO technology by associating it with individual personal interests among consumers concerned about their health.  We also asked ourselves which branch of biotechnology would be more likely to influence the other.  Would public acceptance of the potential benefits of human and animal genomics be likely to extend to GMOs, or would public scepticism over GMOs influence the public’s attitude to human genomics?  We concluded that an appreciation of real benefits to individuals would, in each case, probably remain the key factor in determining public opinion.

In considering public attitudes to human and animal genomics we thought that the relative popularity of the idea of using biotechnology to help cure diseases was a result of the clear expectation of direct benefit to people through, for example genotype based drug or therapeutic interventions which in future might offer improved quality and length of life.  But here too we recognised that there were problems of inequity of access to this new technology which could further marginalise societies in less wealthy countries as well as the poor in developed countries.  Was it, we wondered, morally justifiable to consider altering genes in an attempt to enhance intelligence (a fanciful idea, in any case, some argued) when so much human potential was wasted due to lack of education or, in some countries, to malnutrition and disease.  We heard that the time frame for potential exploitation of the human genome might, in practice, be a matter of decades rather than years.  Nevertheless now that the genie was out of the bottle most of us had little doubt that the technology would be used.  Two topical examples came to mind.  The decision by the Nash family to genetically select their second child in an attempt to save the life of their first, and at the other end of the spectrum, the recently reported intention of a rich lady in the USA to clone her pet mongrel.  Both examples revealed underlying tensions between individual choice and the ethical views of other members of society.  It was suggested that a test should be whether a decision might cause harm only to the individual directly involved or to other people, property or the environment.  Importance was also attached to “reversibility.”  We were told that in contrast to GMO technology most issues around human genetics did not involve genetic modification.  

Those involved with public health services foresaw the day when genotype based analysis might allow us to concentrate on preventive, rather than acute, health care.  We were reminded in this context, however, that genetics was not deterministic.  A genetic predisposition to disease did not equate to certainty of outcome.  But a change of this nature to the health services would not be easy.  Staff would need to be retrained.  Counselling on ethical and other questions would be necessary.  Pharmacogenetics would be expensive.  But, some argued, these costs could be offset, not only by the great advantages to the individual, but also by the overall savings arising from the prevention of illness. 

We thought that cash control was a blunt instrument, but it might still be needed to deal with the problems of rising costs and as a means for driving efficiencies through the system.  Although we did not spend much time on animal genomics, the observation was made that using animals for experiments or as incubators for medical products for humans could provoke a strong argument about animal rights which could in turn set back acceptance of human genomics.  As one participant put it, do we really think it right to have a separate set of rules for the animals we consume rather than the animals we are?  We were also reminded that this technology could be used for “evil” ends and that regulators and governments, particularly in an age of e-information, would need to bear this carefully in mind. 

A number of strands common to both areas of biotechnology ran through our discussions.  There was an almost universal recognition that no common language existed for the conduct of this discussion which reflected underlying beliefs and assumptions.  In Europe, and to a lesser extent in the USA, the previous common language of Christianity was no longer available.  Without such a language, however, it was very difficult to obtain public understanding and consent for the science involved.  It was claimed that the same deep concerns which had emerged in Europe were present also in other countries like Japan and Thailand but again without a language to express these deep and fundamental drives.  At a more basic level, some of the expressions in common media use such as “the breast cancer gene” were simply inaccurate and misleading. 

This brought us to the role of the media.  Complaints were made about sensationalism, trivialisation and inaccuracy.  Highly improbable dangers were often given greater emphasis than highly likely benefits.  We heard that, increasingly frequently, “stories” about biotechnology issues were written by journalists who had no scientific background.  The amount of public noise, not the quality of science, seemed at times to determine policy.  However, a strong plea was made to work with the press.  The media was the principal source of information for most people on such questions.  Scientists should make the effort to cultivate the press and use these contacts to put across their points of view together with a more accurate account of developments.  Scientists should also be prepared to learn the techniques of press interviews and media handling.  If they did not they increased the risk of pressure groups or uninformed press campaigns negating the results of their work.  Given the public’s general suspicion of Governments, corporations and scientists employed by them, it would be important to establish independent advisory bodies and funding for scientists who were independent of politics or financial interests.

Inevitably risk, its definition and management, occupied a central place in our discussions.  Risk was a major issue for governments and regulators most of whom erred on the side of caution even though there were occasions when not to take action could involve greater risk than doing something.  Most based their approach on the precautionary principle.  But, it was claimed, they interpreted this too restrictively with insufficient allowance for possible benefits.  Such an attitude could become a block to further scientific advances.  The problem was that in taking decisions we were always somewhere on a line between certainty and uncertainty with bias towards the latter.  In explaining a decision, we would never be able to say with total confidence that we were sure every factor had been fully considered and all possible outcomes evaluated.  A suggestion was made that we should distinguish between individual and collective risk.  If an individual was made as fully aware as possible of the risks involved in a particular course of action then the decision whether, for example, to eat beef on the bone should be left to the individual.  But collective risk, particularly the imposition of what was described as “unconsented risk” was thought to be in a different category.  People resented not being informed or consulted about decisions which led to their exposure to a generalised risk.  We agreed that transparency by decision-takers was highly desirable.  However much it might be against our current political culture, Ministers should explain and publicise what they were doing and the basis of the information on which they were acting.  Governments should seek to build long-term consensus in relation to risk.  But this should not be an excuse for simply following public opinion.  Occasions would arise where Governments would need to take action even where a consensus did not exist.

Risks also needed to be considered not only within communities, but also between nations.  National cultures differed markedly in relation to risk taking.  In the USA, for example, the entrepreneurial culture was highly valued.  The possibility of future benefits was given a higher priority than, for example, in Europe.  Zenotransplants were cited as a good example of “unconsented risk”.  A decision to proceed with such transplants would be taken by the developed world because that was where the technology existed.  But if it went wrong there were potentially very grave consequences for the developing world who would have had no say in the original decision.  The possibility of competitive regulatory systems was raised.  Countries hoping for national economic gain might take a more relaxed view of a risk in a particular field than others.  Given the ease with which knowledge could be transferred and the mobility of scientists, it was probable that, if refused permission in one country, scientists could find a more welcoming environment elsewhere in the world.  A development already underway among UK GMO scientists, so we were informed.

We considered the role of insurance in the development of this new technology.  We assumed it would play an important part.  Questions of disclosure loomed large.  Should insurance companies be allowed to screen for potential medical risks?  Should individuals be obliged to give genetic information about themselves to the insurers?  Could they, indeed, decline to be informed of the results of any tests?  We concluded that these and other similar problems would have to be tackled soon with the probability that once the knowledge was available in one form or another it would be difficult to prevent its circulation and use. 

The discussion of insurance was closely linked to our consideration of liability.  Biotech firms could be held liable for damage caused by their products to people or property.  But who could be held liable for consequences to common goods like the air or the environment more generally?  We noted that this was a problem to which there was not yet a solution.  In terms of standards to be applied to biotech products it appeared that the EU and the USA would be the dominant players with other countries conforming to their systems.  Ultimately, it was suggested, there would have to be some global norms with universal application.  Without these the developing world would not feel bound by standard setting in which they were uninvolved. 

We also considered the role of patent law.  We acknowledged that firms who invested heavily in developing products needed a return on their investment.  We agreed, however, that the practice of taking out speculative patents on individual genes could inhibit others interested in research and development in the same area.  Venture capitalists would not invest where there was little likelihood of moving from research (which was permitted under current patent licenses) to development of marketable products.  Our discussion concluded with the advice familiar to most who have done business in the USA – get yourself a good lawyer. 

This note can scarcely do justice to the detailed scientific arguments put forward in support or in contradiction to the various points of view advanced.  Nor is it easy to convey the civilised and restrained way in which the debate between proponents of sharply differing views was conducted.  But two of the concluding remarks in the final plenary session gave some indication of the centrality to human life and experience of the subject we were discussing.  This, observed one participant, is fundamentally a battle of ideology, an argument between competing sets of values.  Another thought that we should not be misled by the mundane nature of the products available so far.  It was not the product but the process which was revolutionary.  The rate of acquisition of knowledge was breathtaking and represented a paradigm shift in the development of this science.  For me it is this clash between deeply held values and a scientific process gathering pace from week to week that will lie at the heart of the debate on biotechnology and its effects on our lives and environment in the coming century.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Royal Agricultural Society of England for their help and support for this conference.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Dr John Ashworth
The Chairman, British Library.

Mr Roy Atkinson

Executive Director, Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat.
Professor Conrad G Brunk
Academic Dean & Professor of Philosophy, Conrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo.
Mr Tom MacDonald
Minister (Commercial-Economic), Canadian High Commission.
Dr Brian Morrissey
Assistant Deputy Minister (Research), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Dr Ariel Alvarez-Morales

Principal Researcher, Department of Plant Genetic Engineering, Centre for Research and Advanced Studies, Irapuato.

Professor Malcolm Grant

Head, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge.

Mr Mike Calvert

Chief Executive, Royal Agricultural Society of England.
Dr Andrew Cockburn
Director, Scientific Affairs (Europe/Africa), Monsanto plc.
Dr David Coles
Former Head, Human Genetics Commission Secretariat, Department of Health.
Professor Ian R Crute
Director, Institute of Arable Crop Research.
Dr Angharad Gatehouse
Senior Research Fellow, Department of Agricultural and Environmental Science, University of Newcastle.
Dr Harry Griffin
Assistant Director (Science), The Roslin Institute.
Ms Judith Hann
Broadcaster – BBC science and medical programmes.
Professor John Harris
Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics, University of Manchester.
Professor John R Hillman
Director, Scottish Crop Research Institute.
Mr Patrick Holden
Director, The Soil Association.
Dr Tim Hubbard
Head of Human Sequence Analysis, The Sanger Centre.
The Lord Iliffe
Former Vice-President and Chairman of the Council, The Royal Agricultural Society of England.
Mr Robert Lawton CBE
Ms Angela Lea
Communications Research Manager, Royal Agricultural Society of England.
Dr Ben Miflin
Lawes Trust Senior Fellow, Rothamstead Experimental Station.
Professor Vivian Moses
Chairman, CropGen Panel.
The Rt Hon Sir Patrick Nairne GCB MC
Former Chairman, Nuffield Council on Bioethics and Permanent Secretary, Department of Health and Social Security.
Mr Richard D North
Freelance writer on environmental issues.
Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve
Principal, Newnham College, Cambridge;  Member, Human Genetics Advisory Committee.
Dr Douglas Parr
Chief Scientist, Greenpeace.
Professor Alan Ryan
Warden, New College, Oxford and Chairman, Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party on Genetically Modified Crops:  the ethical and social issues.
Dr Gillian Samuels
Director of Science Policy (Europe), Pfizer Global Research & Development.
Mr Richard Sanders
Director of Communications, Royal Agricultural Society of England.
Ms Auriol Stevens
Editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement.
Ms Justine Thornton
Barrister, Simmons & Simmons;  Member, Government Commission on Agriculture, Environment and Biotechnology.
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Chancellor, University of Kent at Canterbury;  Director, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding.
Mr Guy Trehane
Managing Director, Hampreston Manor Farm Limited.
Baroness Warnock DBE
Member, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advisory Group on Medical Ethics.
Mr John Wyn Owen
Secretary, The Nuffield Trust.
Dr Ron Zimmern
Director, Public Health Genetics, Strangeways Research Laboratory.

Mr Robert A Bourque

Partner, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, USA.
Dr Parris R Burd
Director of Regulatory Affairs, Maxygen Inc.
Mr Gregory Conko
Policy Analyst and Director of Food Safety Policy, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington.
Dr Michael R Moynihan
Senior Project Director, Interlink Biotechnologies LLC, Princeton.