standard Moving beyond risk-based governance of agricultural GM technologies

The GMFuturos launch event, ‘A new approach to governing GM crops? Global lessons from the rising powers’ at the Royal Society earlier this summer brought together a range of senior academics from across the social and life sciences, together with policy practitioners, to reflect on the findings from the project and the lessons that could be learnt for UK and EU decision-making. The research led by Durham University researchers Prof Phil Macnaghten (Geography), Dr Susana Carro-Ripalda (Anthropology) and Dr Joanildo Burity emphasised that risk-based forms of governance are too limiting, and are unable to consider adequately the wider spectrum of social and cultural values that underlie the GM crop and food issue. The meeting discussed the unrealistic assumptions that tend to frame the GM crop issue, and how a more responsible approach to the governance of GM technologies needs to move beyond risk. It provided an overview of the distinct contrasts and similarities between the three different countries studied: Brazil, India and Mexico.

Risk-based governance is not enough

What is wrong with health and risk-based assessments of GM? According to the report, these forms of assessment tend to overlook the actual reasons why people reject GM crops and foods in the first place. Whether GM technologies are safe or not is certainly an important question, but it should not be the only focus in governing GM because it leaves behind the cultural views and ways of life of those who have a stake in GM, such as small farmers. Risk-based assessments are overly reductionist because they assume that if GM crops and foods are deemed ‘safe’ their implementation can proceed without scrutiny, regardless of whether they are even wanted by the people who are expected to use them. Therefore opening up the GM debate is about including voices that are left behind, invisible actors who do not have a say on how these technologies will impact on their lives.

Views on GM from the developing world

In all three national contexts of the study, people reported that the countryside was in crisis. Beyond the health and safety risks of GM are risks of people losing their ways of life and livelihoods. The project identified small farmers in particular as a key stakeholder, but one that has remained all too absent in the GM debate. In Mexico small farmers continue to feed much of the population. More than 2 million farmers practice agriculture in Mexico producing 80 per cent of the country’s maize that is consumed by the majority of the population. Mexicans have great pride in maize agriculture, which is seen as an artisanal craft and as a key ingredient in Mexican social identity.

The working paper reveals that in Mexico there is considerable unease about GM maize which has contributed to an ongoing defacto moratorium. In Brazil, by contrast, GM soya and GM maize have been authorised and have been rapidly taken up by farmers such that Brazil is now a global leader and the second largest producer of GM crops (after the USA). In India, there has also been a widespread critique of agricultural GM technologies which, drawing on post-colonial discussion, have been commonly understood as impositions from outside actors and interests (mostly from the USA). The research also found that crop technologists and farmers would often blame each other for any problems experienced with GM crops, such as insect and weed resistance. Why then are farmers, including small farmers, planting GM crops? In the research, we found that farmers have adopted GM crops for a variety of reasons: due to the seductive promises of the seed companies, due to labour saving and ease of application reasons, due to the perception that if they did not plant GM crops they would risk being left out of the market, or on occasion, because their own crops had been contaminated by neighbouring GM crop plantations. This shows that the decision to adopt GM crops is not necessarily the result of farmers actively choosing the technology, but often due to wider contextual conditions.

The farmer/scientist divide in particular sheds some light on the debate, showing that those for and against GM crops often have quite different perspectives on this highly complex issue. For scientists, plants are often viewed (ontologically) as made up of genetic material and that can be manipulated at will. For smallholder farmers, seeds are often viewed as an integral part of their culture and society, and thus cannot be separated from their unique social, cultural beliefs and values. Some participants from the focus groups believed that human intervention into seeds at a genetic level could lead to major problems for present and future generations. In Mexico especially, the genetic material of seeds was seen as something that should not be tampered with because of the unknown risks it could have on people’s way of life.

In the case of the international team of researchers involved in the study, for many it was the most interdisciplinary project they had ever been involved with, bringing together a diverse variety of academic fields from across the social and life sciences. While the research team was led by social scientists, the project worked closely with plant scientists and policy practitioners in agriculture to better understand the perceptions of different public stakeholders on GM crops, and how new forms of open, inclusive, anticipatory and responsible governance could be implemented to govern agricultural GM technologies. According to the research from all three countries there was little public enthusiasm for GM crops or foods anywhere. In Brazil for example while large farmers were happy to grow GM soya to sell in the global marketplace, consumers (and small farmers) were rarely interested in consuming the products themselves.

Opening up the GM debate

One of the accomplishments of the GMFuturos project is that it demonstrated that it is possible to have in-depth conversations about GM crops and foods, including discussions of the social, political, cultural and religious dynamics that are entangled with GM crops, and that it is both helpful and insightful to compare the debate across more than one national context. Researchers have shown that it is possible to engage with public stakeholders directly, but that new forms of participatory governance need to be designed in order for public concerns to be addressed adequately by policy. A major question asked during the launch event concerned how, if at all, these inclusive and open forms of dialogue should be used to inform decision-making? In response, it was proposed that the same kinds of ‘upstream’ models of public engagement that have been used to deal with other emerging technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and geoengineering could also be used in the case of agricultural GM technologies.

What are the lessons to be learned from these three rising powers? Taking into account the unique contexts of GM crops in each country it is clear that good governance needs to be context specific. In Mexico for example, maize is not only a source of food, but also a way of life and a deep cultural artefact that resonates within Mexican communities. This is rarely acknowledged by agribusiness or by government in their attempts to promote GM agriculture, and this remains a reason why GM technologies are still not widely accepted in Mexico today. In India Bt cotton is grown widely throughout the country, and has led to higher yields and incomes for some farmers, but at the same time it is replacing traditional varieties of food crops and leading many farmers to become dependent on GM seed companies. Also, there is the issue of new risks beings introduced: the risk of weeds becoming resistant to the herbicide used in GM herbicide resistant crops, and the risk of increased pest attacks if the targeted pests develop resistance to the pesticide produced inside the GM Bt crop.

However, in cases where GM crops are widely implemented, the fact that it is accepted by the market does not necessarily entail that it is also accepted by wider society. GMFuturos has addressed some of these gaps in understanding the relationship between technology and society. The reasons for using certain technologies are rarely the same and are usually deeply embedded within a myriad of social, economic and political forces, including the demands that a technology places on society. In the case of GM agricultural technologies new problems and risks emerge and are given prominence, such as the problem of superweeds, but in addition the adoption of the technology raises far-reaching cultural and political issues tied to global trade and economic interdependence. Brazil, for example, exports much of its GM soya and maize to Europe (and increasingly to China), which is then used for animal feed. The economic imperative to adopt GM crops in less developed countries is interconnected with the demands of richer nations who do not have adequate supply of animal feed for their livestock. In Mexico, indigenous farming is clearly important to the economic needs of the population, but maize itself is seen as imperative to the future generations of Mexicans. This is why anticipatory forms of governance for GM are needed because GM has and likely will continue to impact the future of food in societies throughout the world.

Better governance of GM is possible

The GMFuturos report calls for anticipatory and responsible governance of GM crops and foods. It seeks to provide a template ‘to be used in structuring a deliberative conversation with policymakers and other key stakeholders’. Researchers recommend that this can be assisted through the adoption of the AIRR (‘anticipation-inclusion-reflexivity-responsiveness’) framework, each constituent dimension being the subject of considered deliberation by participants at the launch event. The aim of this framework is to move beyond what social science researchers call the ‘institutional void’, the lack of institutional capacities to deal with the non-risk dimensions of governing GM technologies, which has been widely discussed amongst researchers. Without addressing these concerns, which are mainly social and cultural, the polarisation of the GM debate will most likely continue, and the voices of crucial actors left out of the debate will remain unheard. Below is a summary of the AIRR framework as applied to agricultural GM technologies:

  • Anticipation seeks to develop collective inquiry on the social, ethical and political stakes associated with technoscientific advances. Risk-based estimates alone cannot foresee the unforeseen impacts of a technology. To be anticipatory means to recognise the uncertainties and complexities that arise between the co-evolution of science and society, allowing stakeholders to ask ‘what if?’ questions about the technology of concern.
  • Inclusion is about deliberatively including those voices that have tended to be left out of the GM debate, including smallholder farmers and publics. It is then using the results of those discussions in governance processes to help decision makers understand the conditions, if they exist, that would allow GM crops to have shared and inclusive benefits.
  • Reflexivity requires that researchers, including GM scientists, examine their own scientific culture and how they frame the GM issue, and that they engage with the value systems that shape the science they are involved with. This could for example involve training scientists to understand how their research is culturally embedded, including the assumptions about science that are often taken for granted, such as research that aims to be for the public good, but does not involve the public.
  • Responsiveness refers to ways in which systems of governance can respond to needs that are in the public interest. Often regulatory bodies tend to be too slow to respond adequately to public concerns, but for controversial technologies like GM this is unacceptable and therefore requires institutional innovation that moves towards transparency and public engagement with the issues involved.

Further details about how this framework for governance could work in the case of GM can be found in the GMFuturos working paper and a research brief providing policy recommendations for the UK and EU contexts using lessons learned from the project.

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