by | Sep 11, 2023

Making a difference, even when you can’t win

Liz O’Neill, outgoing Director of GM Freeze, makes the case for humility and telling the truth about what success might look like for your campaign.

After nearly a decade at the helm of the UK umbrella campaign on genetic modification (GM) in food and farming, I’m not happy to be moving on just as the damaging Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act is coming into force. However, I know for certain that the new law is slightly less bad than it would have been without me and sometimes that’s the best we can do.

The political gestation of the Genetic Technology Bill lasted seven years and included select committee inquiries, a landmark European Court of Justice ruling and a grandstanding amendment to the Agriculture Bill. In 2021, 88% of public responses to a Defra consultation disagreed with the Government’s plan to dismantle regulatory safeguards on some uses of genetic engineering but it was difficult to celebrate this huge public endorsement for our position because the Environment Secretary announced that he was going ahead regardless.

Next came a Statutory Instrument (SI) to change the law for a limited range of GMO releases. SIs are debated in parliament but nobody has stopped one since the 1970s.

So what did we gain from mounting a campaign that we could never win?

We developed working relationships with parliamentarians across the political spectrum. This led to our briefings being well used when the Genetic Technology Bill itself was debated. Should the next General Election bring a change of government, those relationships may bear far greater fruit.

The drama over whether or not Lord Young had fallen asleep during the SI debate gave me an unexpected chance to explain to an early meeting of the Civil Society Alliance (CSA) just why this apparently obscure piece of legislation actually mattered. Fast forward and the CSA have provided me with invaluable insight and solidarity throughout a grueling campaign.

Two pieces of advice for anyone campaigning against the juggernaut of a government with a still massive majority.

  1. Leave your ego at the door

One of the most valuable things we did during the passage of the Genetic Technology Bill was to create, and constantly update, a simple Google Doc. It listed the many problems with the bill, included model amendments and was made available to colleagues in a wide range of civil society organisations to use as they saw fit. As a result, I saw things that I had drafted going out in other people’s names and that brought me joy.

  1. Be honest with your stakeholders

A key reason why I could celebrate seeing others take the credit for my work was that we had been up front with our members, supporters and funders about how this was all going to work. I caught the transparency habit after a high-profile funder gave us a project grant to work in a particular way. The clear conclusion from that project was that their preferred approach wouldn’t work, and I told them so. It was a scary step, but it was the truth and telling our truth paid off. After more discussions, that same funder awarded us enough core funding to work nimbly and collaboratively throughout the passage of the Genetic Technology Bill, with full understanding that we were focused on mitigation rather than actually stopping it.

Most people – including funders – don’t understand how hard it is to campaign against damaging change but we need to start telling them. If you would like to know more about our experience of doing that, and of keeping going in an incredibly challenging political environment, please get in touch.

Liz O’Neill

Liz O’Neill was the Director of GM Freeze – the UK umbrella campaign focused on concerns about the use of genetic modification in food and farming - from February 2014 to August 2023.



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