Citizens’ democracy: can Brighton’s climate assembly learn from GM Nation?

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Brighton and Hove council is opening its doors to its citizens.
Photo credit: Paul Simpson

Brighton and Hove council will hold a climate assembly in the autumn of 2020, and has begun inviting residents to take part. If the city is to meet its commitment to becoming carbon-neutral by 2030, it’s clear that the council and residents will have to work together. So a citizens’ assembly seems an admirable idea – but will it work, and what can we learn from earlier experiments in participatory democracy? 

I took part in the GM nation? consultation into genetically modified food when it came to the small market town of Saffron Walden in 2003. It was a prototype citizens’ assembly, part of a nationwide consultation organised at the government’s request by Professor Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and chair of the Agriculture & Environment Biotechnology Commission.

67 of us gathered in the council offices on a July evening and listened to two speakers, each allotted 10-15 minutes. A representative from a biotechnology company advocated the commercial cultivation of GM crops in the UK, while someone from, I think, the Soil Association or Friends of the Earth opposed this view. 

We were divided into discussion groups and sent into an adjoining room. I shared a table with, among others, a biologist who had worked on genetic modification and considered it of great benefit, and a beekeeper who was aghast at the lethal effect of powerful herbicides on insects, birds, wildflowers and his bees. There was a robust discussion and we voted on the question of ‘Does the UK need GM food and crops?’ after returning to the hall. A large majority thought not and this was reflected in the overall nationwide result.

According to completed questionnaires received from 37,000 participants, 47 per cent were implacably opposed; 32 per cent somewhat opposed; and 12 per cent had no fixed position. The main messages in the subsequent report were that people in the UK were generally uneasy about GM, and the further they went into GM issues, the harder their attitudes became and the more intense their concerns.

There was an air of disappointment in the DEFRA select committee’s oral hearing of evidence from Professor Grant. It seemed that British citizens had delivered the wrong result. Some politicians saw the commercial growing of GM crops in the UK as a boost for British science with economic benefits.

Comically, the debate’s perceived ‘failings’ were in part attributed to ‘self-selecting’ of participants from a ‘particular social and academic background’ who had ‘already thought about GM foods and crops and formed opinions.’ The Labour MP Austin Mitchell scoffed that “the weighing of the results does make it look as though it is an enthusiasts’ picnic, an AB [social group] enthusiasts’ picnic at that.” I would just add here that I’ve never been to university and, in 2003, was working as a part-time secretary while caring for an elderly mother-in-law and a young daughter. But I could read.

Professor Grant’s response to this criticism was that “these are important opinions to listen to” and many of those who held them “had not felt like the government had listened to them before.”

The professor found himself assigned a tough job with an ‘absurdly tight’ deadline and inadequate resources. Three months would have been more realistic, and the government’s budget for a nationwide consultation was £500,000. New Zealand had spent £2m on a similar exercise and its population is tiny compared with ours. In the end, Professor Grant estimated that GM Nation? had cost nearer £1m. 

There were 600 meetings across the country, “ranging from small gatherings in village halls and upstairs rooms in pubs to large conferences of several 100 people in towns and cities.” Written submissions revealed two common problems. Local organisers were expected to field speakers themselves, and also to distribute the government’s information packs before meetings, but delivery of the packs was patchy and unreliable.

Elliot Morley MP, then the minister for agri-environment, concluded that the debate “was not meant to be a referendum on GM … [but] we must take account of the findings of the debate, we cannot ignore the views of the people that were expressed.” Professor Grant agreed, saying that “If the government were to ignore the outcome they could not hope to engage public opinion in a comparable exercise on any other front in the future.” 

According to GeneWatch UK, the situation in 2020 is that GM crops can be grown experimentally with approval from national regulators, or commercially if approved by the EU. Only one GM crop – a variety of maize – is currently approved for commercial growing in the EU and no GM crops are grown commercially in Britain. Post-Brexit, the approvals process may change, allowing the UK and/or devolved administrations to adopt their own policies on GM crops.

Taking part in GM Nation? was a fascinating experience. Participatory democracy can be messy, but it is clearly the way forward, and I’ll be following Brighton and Hove council’s climate assembly with interest. After four years of Brexit discord, bringing people together in civilised discussion is just what we need.

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