A Report to the Workshop: Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology: Recent Controversies, STS Research and the Policy Process. 8-9 February 2001 @ CNADS- National Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Lisbon.

Lisbon Workshop Report (in Japanese)
by Masaki Nakamura

Provisional Report on the GM Crops Consensus Conference in Japan

Hideyuki Hirakawa

Faculty for the Study of Contemporary Society, Kyoto Women's University
35 Imakumano Kitahiyoshi-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto 605-8501, Japan.
E-Mail: hirakawa@kyoto-wu.ac.jp Phone: +81-75-531-9171; Fax: +81-75-531-9124

This paper was presented at the workshop, "Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology: Recent Controversies, STS Research and the Policy Process", on 8-9 February 2001, at the National Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Lisbon. While the author didn't attend the meeting, Prof. Nobuo Miura (Kobe University) brought it to the workshop.

Updates Information
This document is to be updated occasionally.
The last update was on 28 Feb. 2001.
The section 2.2 is added.

1. Introduction

The consensus conference on GM crops (GMCs) was held by the Society for Techno-innovation of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (STAFF), entrusted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), from September to November 2000. The STAFF is a research institution for R&D and the industry-university-government cooperation as well as PR/PA activities for biotechnology. 18 citizen panelists were selected from 479 applicants in a demographically random manner. Their backgrounds are as in table 1.

Table 1: Background of Citizen Panelists

Sex Age Occupation Sex Age Occupation
Public servant
Medical doctor
Corporation staff
Public servant
Public servant
University student
Housewife & part-time job
Agriculture-related work
No occupation
Office worker
Office worker
Office worker
Office worker

Four meetings of citizen panel were convened as below. The author attended the last two open meetings and gathered information about closed ones from the facilitator, Tadashi Kobayashi (Nanzan University) who is one of STS (Science and Technology Studies / Science, Technology and Society) scholars in Japan.

1st Meeting (15 Sep.)
General instruction for the conference and lecture about basic knowledge about GMCs. (closed)

2nd Meeting (23-4 Sep.)
Lecture, visit to research facilities, and making questionnaires, "Key Questions", by citizen panel. (closed)

3rd Meeting (28 Oct.)
Experts' replies to the key questions and discussion.

4th Meeting (3-4 Nov.)
Completing of the final report: "Citizen's Ideas and Suggestions", and its publication at press conference.

Table 2.1 and 2.2 are the lists of lecturers at the 1st and 2nd meetings and their subjects, and the expert panelists who responded to the "Key questions" of citizen panel, respectively.

Table 2.1. Lecturers at the 1st and 2nd Meetings and their Subjects

1st Meeting (15 September 2000)

(1) Breeding and rDNA Technology"
Katsuji Ohsawa (Graduate School of Agriculture, Hokkaido University; Plant pathology)

(2) "Environmental Impact of GMCs and Food Safety"
Kouichi Hasegawa (Kihara Commemorative Yokohama Foundation for Promotion of Life Science; Executive director)

(3) "Tasks and Problems of GMCs: Natural Scientific Aspects"
Noboru Yanagishita (Honorary professor of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, President of "Nou no Kai (an association for sustainable farming)"; Agrobiology)

2nd Meeting (23 September 2000)

(1) "GMCs in the Eyes of Consumers"
Keiko Futaki (Consumer's Life Advisor)

(2) "Tasks and Problems of GMCs: Social Scientific Aspects"
Makoto Hayashi (Kougakuin University; STS)

(3) "GMCs in the Eyes of Journalists"
Yasuhiko Nakamura (Commentator of the NHK [Japan Broadcasting Corporation])

(4) "Risk and Safety"
Yuko Fujigaki (University of Tokyo; STS)

Table 2.2. Expert Panelists

Hiroshi Sano (Nara Institute of Science and Technology; Plant Molecular Breeding)

Shuji Hisano (Hokkaido University; Agro-economics)

Yuji Watanabe (Free writer)

Yutaka Tabei (National Institute of Agrobiological Resources; cell engineering)

Akihiro Hino (National Food Research Institute; Food microbiology)

Hiroshi Kamata (Tsukuba University; Plant Physiology)

Akira Miki (Food Sanitation Division of Environmental Health Bureau, Ministry of Health and Welfare*; Bio-food specialist)
*MHW is now integrated into the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Nobuko Hiwasa (Consumers Japan, Secretariat General)

Seiichiro Yamane (Monsanto Japan, vice president)

Yoshiki Ohtsuka (Hiroshima University of Economics; International Sociology and STS)

Keiji Kainuma (Bio-oriented Technology Research Advancement Institution; Director)

The steering committee of the conference (table 3) included two STS scholars in Japan; Yukio Wakamatsu, who is the representative of a non-profit organization, the Attentive Japanese Citizens on Science and Technology (AJCOST), and Shuichi Tsukahara. In addition, as mentioned above, the facilitator, Kobayashi, was also a STS scholar. They were also the members who organized previous two consensus conferences convened in 1998 and 1999. While they were informal and tentative, the conference at this time was formally organized under the auspice of a government agency.

Table 3: Steering Committee

Chairperson: Yukio Wakamatsu (Tokyo Denki University)

Committee members:

Minoru Komamine (Institute for Evolutionary Biology)

Yuichi Takayanagi (Commentator of the NHK [Japan Broadcasting Corporation])

Shuichi Tsukahara (National institute for Education)

Takeshi Yoshida (MAFF)

Shuichi Watanabe (Institute for Life and Commodities of the Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union, Director of the Safety Policy Promotion Office)

Facilitator: Tadashi Kobayashi (Nanzan University)

2. Some Characteristics of the Conference.

While further investigation and analysis must be done, following five points are found interesting so far. Further research will be completed by and reported at the next 4S (the Society for the Social Studies of Science) annual meeting in Boston.

  1. Context of the Conference: Conference was not for policy but for "research policy".
  2. Independency of the Citizen Panel's Output.
  3. Boundary Work of Framing: Polarization of framing of GMCs' risks and benefits.
  4. Confirmation of PUS (Public Understanding of Science)Thesis: A Vital Role of Citizen Panel.
  5. Panel's Emphasis on the Importance of Social Science: Public Understanding of "Social" Sciences.

2.1. Context of the Conference.

The first point is that the conference was designed to serve not to agro-food policy as such of MAFF but to the agro-food "research" policy of national research institutes. It was planned by the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Research Council (AFFRC) of MAFF. It is conducting a research project of "Comprehensive Study of Safety Assurance in the Industrial Use of GMOs" containing a research topic of "Research Matching up to Public's Proposals". The conference was planned as a part of this project.

As is often the case with the nuclear power plant project and other sorts of public construction, "participatory policy-making" held by government often adds up to an opportunity for publics to give government a promise to accept its plan. At least, publics are always skeptical about the "dialogue" prepared by government. In fact, at the early meetings of this conference, citizen panelists were afraid that the bureaucrats might exploit their consensus. However, there is relatively little danger of misuse of public participation since it was embedded not in the context of policy-making but in that of research.

In this regard, it is illuminative to recall that a vital function of consensus conference is to shed light on underlying disagreements among participants and unnoticed points to be argued in order to build up more appropriate and legitimate framing of the issue. In short, consensus conference is an opportunity for "mutual learning" from the difference in opinion, knowledge, insight, perspective, context of each participant, rather than a tool for consensus making as implied by its name. In this sense, it is appropriate for consensus conference to be embedded in the context of research rather than in the that of political decision-making.

Of course, if we seek for the possibility of such an intellectual, not political, contributions of consensus conference, it should be hosted by independent academic institutions such as universities or relevant academic societies. However, there is still a merit in hosting it by government since it could open up further possibility to redefine the research agenda of public (national) sector. In particular, R&D in the field of biotechnology has been so far exclusively driven by private sectors that propel the privatization and commodification of knowledge. In this circumstance, the direction of R&D would often be misguided into minimizing the concerns for potential risks of the technology while maximizing the immediate industrial and economic profits. It is, or should be, the role of public research institutions such as the STAFF that correct this tendency. Of course, the citizen panel of consensus conference is not the "representative" of all publics; it is no more than a sample. However, the "external" input from the outside of experts community could widen the scope of framing that tends to be narrowed by disciplinary or economic interests.

2.2 Independency of the Citizen Panel's Output.

The second point is about the "independency" of the citizen panel's output. It may safely be said that the conference succeeded at least procedually in establishing the independency. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the final report, "Citizen's Ideas and Suggestions", was writen wholy by the citizen panelists themselves. According to the facilitator, Kobayashi, who was also a participatory obeserver in a sense, they themselves discussed and completed the report by using PC projector, and what the STAFF's staffs did was only typing those sentences on PC. Kobayashi also pointed out that from the beginning of the project of the conference the steering committee members shared the recognition that any goals of debate should not be preset in consensus conference and otherwise it would lead to serious distrust in the conference result as well as in STAFF and MAFF. This was what Wakamatsu, chairperson of the committee, stressed in the first place.

In order to avoid this danger, the STAFF made lots of efforts to establish the independency of the conference. First of all, it created the steering committee consisted of persons with various backgrounds; consumers' union, mass media, social sciences (i.e. STS), bio-science as well as MAFF. The STAFF left all the business of management such as the selection of citizen panelists, expert panelists, procedures of the meetings, advetisements, table arrangement etc,, to the hands of the committee, and the actual expedition of the proceedings in all meetings was left to the facilitator, who kept his non-interventionist policy in expeding. In effect, he gained the highest score in the citizen panelists' evaluation of the conference conducted after the final meeting. In addition, the STAFF noticed every meeting and published its minutes on its web site as soon as possible in order to retain the transparency of the conferenece. In Japanese political culture, government's use of publics and experts opinions have been conventionally the one in which a certain goal was often implicitly preset and the final report was drafted and written by the secretariat of gevernment agency. In such circumstance, the method of consensus conference might be a big challenge for the administrators of MAFF and STAFF experts, and it is praiseworthy for them to have carried out that thorny task.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that this, if say, "democratic move" in MAFF's administration have emerged out of MAFF's administrators' own initiative. It was them who originally proposed the consensus conference and consulted with Wakamatsu in Nevember 1999. Just as in European and other countries, the Japanese public opinions against GM food and crops have grown rapidly. And especially in 90's, repeated accidents of neclear facilities and misconduct and secrecism of relevant organizations have added much fuel to the growth of more general public distrust in government and expert communities. In such circumstance, government officials have gradually learned to establish the transparency and openess of policy-making. The MAFF's consensus conference is one of the direct outgrowth of this trend. Among the others, the MAFF's attempt seems to exceed other ones in promoting public participation, averting persuading style of public relation as possible. As mentioned above, the project of consensus conference was planned under the AFFRC's research program that promotes the research to be responsible for publics' concerns and proposals.

While one should bear in mind that the initiative of this sort of democratic move in MAFF is principally oriented toward the promotion of public acceptance (PA) of GMOs, the methods such as consensus conference are the tools to promote communication among various interests and points of view in society. In any case, we have to watch hopefully and carefully, and cope with, this newly emerged circumstance for the relationships among publics, experts and governments.

2.3. Boundary Work of Framing

The third point to be made was that there was a sharp disagreement among expert panelists who made answers to the citizen panel's key questions at the 3rd meeting. It was the "boundary work" as to what was the appropriate way of framing the risks and benefits of GMCs. On the one hand, some of experts engaging in R&D of GMCs maintained that its risks and benefits ought to be evaluated independently of the socio-economic conditions of contemporary world agro-food system. On the contrary, social scientists, Yoshiki Ohtsuka who wrote a book of the sociological studies of R&D of GMCs and Shuji Hisano, argued that the evaluation should be situated in the context of the agro-food system which is characterized by monoculture, excess industrization and commodification of agriculture, unfair trade of foods between the south and the north, vertical integration of agro-food system and "biopiracy" by supernational agribusiness, and so on. They contended that these conditions would not only nullify the alleged possibility for benefits of GMCs such as a vital solution to the food shortage or environmental remediation but also amplify the socio-economic risks as well as the environmental ones. In fact, if one sees seriously the socio-political reality of present agro-food system and bio-industry, she can hardly expect that GMCs would be a vital solution to the food shortage in the south. Seeming hopefulness of this possibility stems from neglect of the social reality.

It is interesting to recall that such a boundary work had been for many years conducted in the negotiation for the Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The proponents of maximum free trade of GMOs, e.g. USA, Canada and other countries, so-called "Miami group", had been trying to exclude the socio-economic considerations of GMOs from the protocol, while the opponents and critics of GM free trade, e.g. developing countries (G77/China), environmental NGOs, kept calling for inclusion of that consideration to the protocol. Although the proponents claimed that the risk assessment of GMOs should be based on so-called "sound science", they meant by "science" only natural science. Incidentally, in January 1999, the STAFF published a recommendation to relevant ministries that Japanese government should not allow CBD parties to incorporate the consideration for the socio-economic impacts of GMOs into the protocol ("The Recommendation for the Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity", STAFF, 22, January 1999). One reason for this was that the risk assessment ought to be based solely on (natural) scientific knowledge. Another reason was that objective evaluation of socio-economic impacts could hardly be made because they might differ from nation to nation. (It is noteworthy that the term "objective" was used in very special and narrow sense.)

The real reason for such a boundary work to narrow the scope of framing is not clear so far. At international negotiation level, it is quite reasonable to see the economic interests of biotechnology industry behind the face of science. However, in this specific case, it is unclear to what extent the scientists and engineers who attended the consensus conference were motivated by industrial interests. They may have been entirely accustomed to a certain style of thinking that defines the problem by quite limited number of variables they can easily understand and control within their expertise. Alternatively, they may feel that it is "impure" to merge social aspects and natural scientific/technological ones. These questions must be answered in further research.

2.4. Confirmation of PUS (Public Understanding of Science) Thesis.

The fourth point is that the panel successfully confirmed the basic insight of sociological studies of the PUS (Public Understanding of Science: Wynne, 1995; Irwin and Wynne, 1996); lay citizens not only can sufficiently uptake complicated technical issues but also can make significant contributions to the development of scientific and technological discourse by raising some vital questions from their own standpoints as consumers, parents, students, or agricultural producers. Their questions could considerably succeeded in widening and reframing the scope of problem of the risks and benefits of GMCs. For example, at the 3rd meeting, an old female farmer in the citizen panel asked the one of expert panelist, vice president of the Monsanto Japan, whether the risk assessment has been made on the use of straws of GMCs for animal feeds, and, if not, whether the Monsanto had any plan to conduct it in near future. She engages in organic farming so that her concern was quite a matter of course for herself. However, the answer of the vice president was "No, not yet, and we have no plan to do test on the straws so far". Responding to this reply, the woman finally got his promise that the Monsanto would start research on the safety of straws of GMCs in near future. "Scientists see only the world in inside of the laboratory. They should understand the situation of consumers and producers.", commented another panelist.

Another example of the citizen panel's role of reframing was a panelist's comment on the experts' premise being based on which they defined the problem to be solved by the GMCs. When referred to the merits of GMCs, the experts engaging in R&D of GMCs always claimed that the GMCs could solve the problem of serious food shortage in the 21st century when world population would reach to 10 billion. The premise of this claim is that the world population will constantly increase and reach to 10 billion in the middle of the 21st century. The explosive population growth is an unchangeable given fact for them. It was this premise, however, that the citizen panelist criticized. She asked the experts: "Why don't you try to control the population growth? " She tried to redefine the problem by redefining what should be counted as given conditions shaping the boundary conditions of problem.

What should be noted here is the political and/or intellectual nature of the citizen panel of consensus conference. Namely, the citizen panelists were the "concerned publics" that had great interests in, and had much of something to say about, GMCs issue rather than mere "lay publics". Thanks to the random selection, the panel was not externally structured by any stakeholders groups such as anti-GM citizen groups or pro-GM industrial groups. At the point that they volunteered for the panel, however, they internally organized as a group of concerned publics. In this sense, the consensus conference is not a tool for technology assessment by the lay publics. Rather, it is, or approximates, the assessment by the so-called "extended peer groups" (Wynne, 1995) including diverse "local experts".

The key questions made by the panel are as below. They are quite comprehensive with respect to the scope of framing.

1. About the rDNA technology:
(1) What is the difference between GM and traditional breeding method?
(2) Why have GMCs been developed?
(3) What is the prospect for future R&D and GM food?

2. What are the benefits of rDNA technology for society?

3. About the adverse effects of GMCs on the environment:
(1) Gene transfer to the relative plants.
(2) Effects on insects and other lives.
(3) Effects on human body.
(4) Effects on biodiversity.

4. About the adverse effects of GMCs on human health:
(1) Will the long-term uptake of GMCs, directly from foods or indirectly from animal feeds, cause any effects on human and later generation?
(2) Why is the chronic toxicity test not required for the GM foods?

5. About the institutional mechanism related to GMCs:
(1) Who ought to be liable for damage of GMCs?
(2) Is the present domestic and international safety control system sufficient?
(3) Is there any possibility for abuse of rDNA technology? Is there any barrier against it?

6. About the "labeling":
(1) Is it possible to indicate the purpose of genetic modification?
(2) Why is the minimum standard of GM content by percentage for labeling set as 5%?
(3) Why is the label for the animal feeds not required?

7. About Japanese agriculture:
(1) Is it necessary for Japanese agricultural policy to introduce GMCs?
- Can it raise the degree of self-sufficiency of foods?
- Can it reduce amount of use of pesticide?
- What is the relationship between introduction of GMCs and promotion of organic farming?
(2) Why is GM rice required now?
(3) What kind of cooperation have been established between R&D institutions and farmers?
(4) Is domestic production sufficient for the use for animal feeds and rice straws?

8. International issues:
(1) What are the effects of use of GMCs on the world food supply?
- Will it lead to the domination of seeds and foods by supranational agribusiness?
- Is there any problem with dealing of foods in world market economy?
- Will it widen the economic gap between the developed nations and developing ones?
- Is it possible to guarantee the transparency of channels of distribution of GMCs? Is it possible to trace the distribution? Can it be disclosed?
(2) What are the differences in the ways of thinking about the safety and labeling of GMCs between European countries and USA?
(3) What kind of system of the patents or IPRs (Intellectual Property Rights) for rDNA technology should be established?

9. How have Japanese government been disclosing relevant information since the first introduction of GMCs into Japan?

2.5. Panel's Emphasis on the Importance of Social Science: Public Understanding of "Social" Sciences.

The last point is very an example of citizens' role of reframing the issue. The citizen panel strongly emphasized the importance of social scientific analyses of scientific and technological issues such as GMCs, and to a certain extent, they could share this insight with some of experts engaging in R&D of GMCs. They concluded their report as follows (tr. by the author):

…. We recognize that it is necessary for us to acquire the social scientific way of thinking about the risks and benefits as well as to share the information concerning the issue, in order to realized dialogue among government, corporations and publics. While we have learned at this conference that the tools for consensus making of society could be provided by social sciences, it seems that this recognition is not shared among wider publics. The government should not only disclose and disseminate the information but also promote social scientific analyses of science and technology….

As might be expected, "social scientific analyses of science and technology" mainly refers to STS, according to the facilitator, Kobayashi. In fact, at the 2nd meeting of the conference, two STS scholars, Yuko Fujigaki and Makoto Hayashi, delivered lectures on sociological aspect of problems of GMCs. Again, at the 3rd meeting, two social scientists, Ohtsuka and Hisano, gave their answers to panel's key questions. According to Kobayashi and some of members of citizen panel, what was the most impressive and illuminative for the panel in this conference were talks of those social scientists. When talked with a middle-age woman after the closing of the 4th meeting, she said that she had thought that the risk assessment was exclusively natural scientific and technological matter and that it was very happy for her to learn social scientific framing of the issue in this conference. In this sense, the conference was a good lesson for public understanding of "social" science as well as PUS (or PUST).

At the same time, the conference was also an opportunity for citizen panelists to learn about "science in action". At the 4th meeting, some of panelists stated their impression that it was very happy to know that there were still wide disagreement among experts as to the evaluation of risks and benefits of GMCs. They had been captured by the idea that science is unanimous discourse and believed that controversy about GMCs' risks had been already settled. For example, however, at the 3rd meeting, some of scientists engaging in GM R&D explained about the concept of "substantial equivalence" that is the most vital concept in risk assessment of GMCs, but all of the explanations were slightly different one another.

It is unfortunate, however, that no media coverage referred to the citizen panel's emphasis on the importance of social science and their impression on "science in action" despite that it was stated in conclusive paragraphs of the final report and definitely mentioned by panelists and members of the steering committee at the press conference in the 4th meeting. Even at the press conference, no reporters touched that point. It is necessary to encourage the "Media's Understanding of Social Science" as well as its understanding of science and technology!

On the other hand, on the side of experts, what impression each of natural scientists who replied to panel's questions had is unknown so far and to be investigated in future research. However, when talked with the chairperson of the board of directors of the STAFF after the 4th meeting, he stressed that social scientific perspective was so fresh and illuminative for agro-scientists and engineers such as himself that he deeply felt the need to incorporate those studies into the STAFF's R&D.

No matter how other experts may feel about the panel's stress on the significance of social scientific research on GMCs, as an immediate outcome of the conference, the STAFF officially published a recommendation to the relevant government agencies that stresses the importance of social scientific research on GMCs, based on the panel's final report. As mentioned above, just two years ago, the STAFF's position was intrinsically against incorporating socio-economic considerations into the evaluation of risks and benefits of GMCs. In this regard, it may safely be said that the conference could, at least partly, make a significant contribution to changing the mind of experts of the STAFF, though we should try to find other factors that have lead to the current situation.

However, there is still a serious but interesting gap between natural scientists and social scientists (in this case, STS scholars). Immediately before the Lisbon workshop, on 5 February 2001, the STAFF held a symposium on the public participation in technology assessment, based on the outcome of the consensus conference. As representatives of steering committee of the conference, two social scientists, Tadashi Kobayashi and Yukio Wakamatsu, and one natural scientist, Minoru Komamine, gave their speeches. What was impressive was that Komamine, while stressing the importance of social scientific approach, evaluated the conference exclusively from the point of view that to what degree citizen panelists could understand the technical content of GMCs. On the contrary, criticizing "deficit model" of PUS, Kobayashi eagerly made a point that the principal role of citizen panel in consensus conference is not to uptake the technical content of scientific and technological matter. According to him, it is rather experts who must learn from the citizen's questions and "local knowledge".

Furthermore, there seems to be also gaps between natural scientists and citizen panel. An illustrative instance is Komamine's comment on the "modality" of sentences in panel's final report. Here I mean by "modality" what indicates the factual status of sentence (Latour and Woolgar, 1979). The style of every sentence summarizing experts' explanation at the 3rd meeting was "Citizen panel understood that experts claimed that....". This suggests that the panel might recognize the experts' assertions as "opinions", or scientific claims being yet in controversy, rather than an unequivocal explanation of a fact. Contrarily, Komamine maintained that experts' assertions were just an explanation of an objective fact. Actually, however, as mentioned above, there were considerable disagreements among experts' explanation even of basic concept such as the substantial equivalence. While in the eyes of citizen panel the voice of scientists were never unanimous, it was just a single voice in the eyes of scientists. This is a very much interesting phenomenon that should be scrutinized further.

Concluding Remarks

Further research must be done in near future. At present, we are just making preparation for hearing from citizen panelists. We also have a plan to do hearing from experts attended the conference and relevant administrators of MAFF.

In addition, the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Research Council (AFFRC) of MAFF has a plan to continue the research project in which the last conference was planned and intends to incorporate social studies of GMCs and the experiments on the participatory technology assessment into its research agenda. We will present a paper on the conference at next 4S annual meeting in Boston.


Wynne, Brian (1995) "Public Understanding of Science", S. Jasanoff et al. (eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Sage Publications, 1995: 361-388.

Irwin, Alan and Brian Wynne eds. (1996) Misunderstanding Science?: The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology, Cambridge University Press.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar (1979) Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Sage Publications.

Last update: 28 February 2001.