I felt some trepidation when I was invited to participate in one of the Food Ethics Council’s Food Talks sessions, on the subject of “What problems are GM food and feed trying to solve?

I had managed to avoid becoming embroiled in the subject until now, but decided if MATTER was to properly explore ‘Responsible Innovation’, then I couldn’t duck it.

I had recently been exploring the impact of our Cognitive Biases on our attitudes to new technologies, (if you are interested, start with the work of Daniel Kahneman).   So I decided to kick off my talk with what I hoped was a humorous swipe at this phenomenon which affects us all, whether we like to think it does or not.

Cognitive biases are particularly noticeable in relation to issues that people feel very strongly about and where fundamental values or cherished beliefs may be challenged: perfect GM territory.  Three such biases sprung to mind. 

There’s Confirmation Bias, where we cherry pick the information we receive and selectively hear what we want to hear to confirm our existing beliefs.  Anything which contradicts that view is ignored, dismissed or vilified.   Reading through many of the articles, comments in blogs and even academic papers on GM food, it seemed that Confirmation Bias was alive and well. 

Then there’s the Backlash Effect which demonstrates that if someone has a perspective that is particularly compelling in challenging our views, we will find a way to morph it into evidence which supports our perspective and cements still further our sense of certainty.  A recent example is the furore about President Obama’s nationality.  His birth certificate was put on-line, but instead of silencing the dissent, doubters saw the birth certificate as proof that their conspiracy theory was correct! 

Then there’s Wilful Blindness, where we choose not to know, mentally sticking our fingers in our ears and ignoring anything that contradicts our cherished belief (check out the work of Margaret Heffernan for more on this).

Therefore, as I pointed out in the intro to my talk, since it’s not my intention to change anyone’s mind in the first place, there wasn’t much need for trepidation after all!  

However, I hadn’t considered that what originated as a witty segue to my talk would end up being a really defining moment in my own thinking on Responsible Innovation and GM. 

To be honest, I didn’t really know where I stood on the subject of GM food and feed, and as anyone Googling it will know, finding balanced, impartial information is a total nightmare.  In the end I turned to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.  I know the people who run it, and I know how very very hard they try to be as impartial, thoughtful, nuanced and independent of any one particular perspective as possible.  Also unlike many academics, they speak my language and their work isn’t behind a paywall. 

I started with their report ‘The use of GM crops in developing countries’, which although published in 2003, had been highlighted by a credible commentator as still very current.  I also Googled a wide range of opinions, and was struck by how similar the issues were to the analysis we had done on Nanotechnology, Food Irradiation, Synthetic Biology and other technologies.

I decided on balance that I agreed with the Nuffield view “that there is an ethical obligation to explore the potential benefits responsibly, in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty, and to improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries”.

My thinking in relation to other technologies also supported my view that I would make my mind up on a case by case, place by place basis.  I decided that I would come to a viewpoint bearing in mind evidence of scientific benefit, clear analysis of risk to people and the environment, where social and ethical issues and impacts, now and in the future, were explored in the round and where all perspectives were equally weighted and deliberated before decisions were made.

These ‘Principles for Responsible Innovation” (developed over the last nine years in a multi-stakeholder approach), stood up to scrutiny when pointed at GM food. (But, I wondered, was that a cognitive bias?)

The other speaker at the event was Dr Michael Antoniou. Michael presented his views and gave me his report ‘GM Myths and Truths’, which is a passionate work going into great detail to rebut the pro-GM arguments about the technology’s safety.

I have since looked at it,  and am truly unable to decide whether his analysis is more ‘the truth’, than the many other views of ‘the truth’ that I hear from scientists and independent commentators who seem very trustworthy and appear to think GM crops have a place in the toolbox we need to provide food security for all.  (Is this another cognitive bias alert?)  

How on earth are you and I supposed to decide?  Is it any wonder that when the meeting’s attendees were asked for a one-word emotion to describe their instinctive reaction to the issue of GM food, that the most common responses were ‘fear, confusion & uncertainty’?  Is it remotely surprising that given totally contradictory evidence from what seems to us to be equally trustworthy sources, we go back to our fundamental beliefs when faced with all this noise?

I have a little more sympathy now with policy makers who have to make important decisions in this context. The plethora of conflicting data, entrenched views and often immovable opinions does not make policymaking any easier.  If cognitive biases on all sides are running the show, how are we as a society to make headway in deciding how to respond to the many challenges associated with food security and sustainabiilty? 

Is there a role for something like MATTER’s Principles for Responsible Innovation to at least stimulate a wider debate about evidence, impacts and trade offs, or will that just add more heat than light and keep us on this same circular argument?  I certainly welcome the Food Ethics Council’s always thoughtful and constructive contribution to the debate.

Hilary Sutcliffe is the Director of MATTER and was guest speaker at our recent Food Talks event on “What problems are GM food and feed trying to solve?”

Hilary was previously the Director of the Responsible Nano Forum which she founded in 2007. She focuses on improving participation in debates about governance and social and ethical impacts of science and technology innovation; multi-stakeholder involvement processes and connecting people and ideas to create better solutions to complex problems.