The 1999 Australia Consensus Conference saw a group of 14 randomly-selected diverse citizens hear from academics before being given the chance to deliberate over the role of genetically modified organisms in the food industry.
Problems and Purpose
In the Australia consensus conference, a panel of 14 laypeople were bought together in south Australia in the Canberra's Old Parliament House over the course of three days. The issue which the conference dealt with was genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food and whether genetic modfiication should take place in our food industry. GMOs have undergone a process of altering their genes. The purpose of the conference was to provide citizens the chance to contribute to a better future for food; it attempted to provide citizens the opportunity to contribute to this better future for genetically modified food not only for the citizens of Australia but for all around the world. It also allowed the voice of citizens to be heard regarding the issue of gene technology in food. Another one of the key purposes for the conference was to provide direction on the issue in order to encourage a fair and balanced decision-making process without undue influence from those with vested interests. The conference used random selection which can be seen as a problem for some in terms of whether data collected from random sampling can be meaningfully generalized to a larger population, especially from a small sample. Also, during the decision making process the panel was not able to ask specific questions.
Background History and Context
The process was a consensus conference, as were first introduced in Denmark. The aim of this process was to integrate the public back into the decision making process. It does this in a number of ways, the first being by using rigorous rules; it also made available the best knowledge so that the participants could have a broad and informed understanding of the issue at hand which was science and technology in food. During the process, dialogue takes place between two panels, one consisting of citizens which were randomly selected whom are unaware of the issue and the other panel being a group of experts. They all have conflicting viewpoints on the issue and are experts in their field. The consensus conference aimed to bridge the gap between citizens and decision makers such as governments and industry specialists. The citizens produced a citizens panel report, the purpose of which was to put forward the view of citizens decision makers. The conference had a variety of effects; for example, in Demark, reports established have had direct influence in the course of legislation. In the case of the 1999 Australian consensus conference on genetic technology in the food chain, the conference managed to establish a new department in the Australian government biotechnology department in Australia. Another key factor of this is that the citizen panel is the main actor.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Australian Museum supported the initiative, which was intended to bring together consumers through "a citizens' panel" selected from around Australia.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
14 members of the public were randomly selected; they reflected a range in terms of gender, age, education, occupation, and geographical location. Because the participants were randomly selected, they had no subject matter in common and represented a cross selection of the community.
Methods and Tools Used
This initiative was an example of a consenus conference, broadly defined as a "meeting held in order to represent the average society member’s view on a particular issue" . It was chosen in order to integrate the public into decision-making processes. In using this process, the panel is able to become more informed on the issues facing their community or country as well as suggest improvements or directions to take.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
During the deliberation, the participants were able to listen to a Lay panel; throughout the decision making process, decision-makers were able to understand clearly the aspiration of the public regarding genetic technology. In order to produce the lay panel report, the citizens argued, discussed, talked and listened to the views of others to achieve consensus. It is argued that the conference was significant for public interest as it not only represented the view of the public but it demonstrated the purest form of citizen participation. Also, it showed how to include the public in decision making regarding global issues. The reason why some argue that this was important is because the decisions made during the conference not only affected the privileged few, but the majority of the public. The citizens had an opportunity to listen to experts with conflicting opinions, and then got together to offer recommendations on each of the issues they discussed which was then put in a report to present to government. They were able to hear conflicting viewpoints to help them make up their minds, until they found a point that they agreed on.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
At the end of the conference the panel had produced a written report which has all their recommendations in each of the areas which they were considering. These areas were Regulations of Gene Technology in the Food Chain, Processes of Decision- Making, Science and Risk, Environment and Health, Alternatives to Gene Technology, Ethics and Morality, Multinational Corporations, International Conventions, Public Awareness and Participation and Labelling and Choice. As a result of the conference the Australian government established a new body in this area which is Biotechnology Australia; this body now coordinates regulations in food production.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The reason why the Australian consensus conference on genetic technology in food affects and was significant for democratic innovation was due to the fact that it used public deliberations and was inclusive. Also, because of the fact that the conference included ordinary citizens whom are not aligned to interest groups, the conference encourages deliberative democracy; it is a form of public deliberation because it is free and equal as well as that citizen are at the core of decision making. The Australian conference was significant as it used some of the key features of democratic innovations. For example, in the conference the participants were informed by listening to an expert panel, and were able to listen to a balanced view. Also the conference consulted and involved citizens by working directly with the public and obtained feedback. Additionally it was an ideal form of deliberative democracy as it followed the three principles which are representative (the use of random selection), deliberation (consulting the participants) and influence. The fact that the participants were randomly selected showed that they resembled the wider population. As the conference consisted of a small group of people it provides the opportunity to deliberate and engage in dialogue. The conference was a clear example that having a smaller group allows for complex issues to be discussed and a Consensus to be reached. Deliberative democracy is at the key of Habermas’ procedural concept of democracy. Consensus conferences deliver a new (citizens') view on the particular topic. The Australian consensus conference on gene technology in the food chain made participants aware that “science and industry have to take account of the concerns of citizens about ethics, the environment, the right of choice and information, and many others, if they wish to win public support not only for gene technology but also from consumers and for science itself” (McKay, 1999). What this demonstrates is that the result of conferences is largely influenced by the mass media. Not only does this affect the country in which the conference was taking place which was Australia but could have had a massive impact on the rest of the world and how we produce food. It also has a direct impact on health and environment and the possibility to reduce world hunger. It is also suggested that if the conference is successful it will help give volume to the voice of people all over the world. The conference also raised important questions which would affect everyday life if gene technology was introduced such as what would be the fundamental issues that would affect the environment in relation to GMOs.
Challenges with collecting data
Consensus conferences can fulfill different aims and objectives depending on the different settings in which the tool may be applied. However, consensus conferences can be time consuming and require a lot of manpower. The Australian consensus conference on gene technology in the food chain in 1999 was different in that after each discussion the group came out with recommendations in each area. Unlike their usual community consultation and education strategies, in consensus conferencing there is no control over the outcome. Consensus conferencing is unconventional and challenging, and involves making a leap of faith. The reports were easy to find, since a lot of data was collected on the conference; however, not much was gathered on how the random selection was performed.
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Lead Image: Genetically Modified Organisms https://goo.gl/gt5Ykf