GM experiments and public opinion

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On Tuesday 22nd October a public meeting on ‘Agro-food experiments and citizens participation” was held in Casalino, Novara, Italy.

The meeting was attended by approximately sixty people: citizens, experts, journalists, members of farmers associations, representatives of the local and regional governments and of the environmental agency.

It was indeed a very interesting meeting, for at least two reasons. On the one hand, it represented a quite rare opportunity – the first of this kind in Italy – of an open confrontation among different social actors on issues regarding scientific research and its social implications. It was also the first Italian ‘experiment’ of consultative processes regarding biotechnology experiments.

Within the framework of the EU project Paradys Observa took part in preparation of the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, the Mayor announced the existence of GM experimentations carried out in the local territory. He underlined the fact that his office was not provided with any information on the experiments – something not obligatory according to the Italian law (as confirmed by the representative of the Region and of the Regional Agency for the environments who attended the meeting). The present procedure and law do not in fact force the national Government to inform the local authority, while the authorization for the experiments – issued by the National Ministry of Health – is communicated to the Region and to the ARPA (Regional Agency for the Environment).

After the Mayor’s communication, a Piacenza University researcher helpfully provided some data concerning the experiments. Despite the different speakers’ points of view, there was a quite clear convergence on the necessity to carry on the experiments. However, the comments made by the local citizens who attended the meeting emphasized that the lack of information about the experiments did not allow a real participation on the part of the local institution and the local residents. As it was argued, moreover, the disinformation may have also increased citizens’ suspicion. People may have thought, in fact, about an attempt to hide experimental practices on the sake of economical interests.

On the basis of these preliminary observations, the debate analysed the dimension of responsibility. Which level and degree of transparency this kind of decisions should have? Is it possible to involve in such type of decisions a higher number of actors? The Casalino case underlines the necessity of finding certain new forms of participation with regard to technological and scientific innovations. If scientific and technological innovations, as usual, encounters certain resistance given the impossibility to calculate the real risks and to identify specific responsibilities, an increasing awareness is growing among citizens, as informed consumers, of the need for an adequate communication of all the various forms of biotechnological applications possible today.

It should be underlined, though, that the openness of the participants who attended the meeting allowed a correct and constructive dialogue.
The analysis of this experience, thus, may contribute to the debate about the role of citizens within the policy making process, and this with regard of both: the GM goods in particular, and, more in general, scientific research.

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