GM Nation or GM Planet? How to involve citizens in decisions about transgenic crops

world map

The UK’s GM Nation? public debate – conducted over a decade ago, tried to include the voices of citizens in decision-making over transgenic crops. With recent decisions by China and India possibly signalling a shift of opinion against GM in these ‘rising powers’, what kinds of institutions are required to enable democratic governance of these technologies across countries with diverging agricultural innovation pathways?

A recent decision by Narendra Modi’s new Indian administration to halt GM crop trials, and China’s decision not to renew biosafety certificates for GM rice and maize, both point towards shifting political positions in this ever-fractious debate. Given the complex and obscure national stories behind these positions (see last week’s blogpost by my colleague Sam Geall on the Chinese case), scholars are wondering how open, transparent and inclusive governance might ever be possible at the international level.

In June this year I attended an event at the Royal Society entitled ‘A New Approach to Governing GM Crops: Global Lessons from the Rising Powers’ (previously discussed in this blog by Dominic Glover). Outputs of the ‘GMFuturos’ project are now being written up into an edited book, which will be part of the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability book series.

The organisers of the event asked me to provide a response to the project’s studies and to consider what institutional innovations were needed to involve citizens in GM governance. I decided to approach the question based on my experience of the UK’s ‘GM Nation?’ public debate, and the kinds of institutional innovations that would be needed in very different national contexts in order for a democratic, inclusive decision-making around this technology at the international level.

Lessons from the UK

Firstly I commented on the situation in the UK, which had been put forward in an earlier talk as a ‘leader’ in social science linked to GM crops. I agreed that the UK had produced some particularly interesting research (including some by STEPS) on what the public think, why and what that means for the governance of GM crops.

At the same time, I also think that the practical experience under the last government – of constituting the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) on one hand and supporting the multiple strands of the ‘GM Nation?’ public dialogue – offers a number of lessons for other countries. Granted, these initiatives had their faults, but they remain globally-relevant experiments in soliciting stakeholder and citizen input to policy making.

Taking it global

What innovations are required now? In my belief, one particular finding of the GM Nation? steering group – that “developing countries have special interests” – pointed to a limitation of the initiative and a key outstanding need: that of internationalising the debate.

For one thing, the global challenge of food security requires linking and co-ordinating across national jurisdictions, and a detailed understanding of the needs of beneficiaries and international partners. For another, decisions on GM food and agriculture taken in other countries affect those available to us here in the UK (and vice versa). The question is not so much GM Nation? as GM Planet?

As argued earlier this year in a paper I wrote with Paddy Van Zwanenberg and Andy Stirling, approaches to ‘broadening out’ and ‘opening up’ technology assessment can help feed in to a more co-ordinated approach, and enable perspectives from multiple international sources to inform political debates. Here, UK Foresight has made some attempts to seek international inputs (for example in the ‘Future of Food and Farming’ study) but there is still a need for further broadening out to include diverse (both UK and non-UK) voices in technology assessment.

However, calls for ‘broadening out’, ‘opening up’ and ‘democratising’ technology governance are unlikely to be taken up in China, where they are not new. Whilst there is increasing interest in such moves amongst some of the country’s academic circles, a recommendation based on UK-centric values remains in tension with a technocratic approach to policy-making and a ‘deficit model’ perspective on communicating around science and technology is still prominent.

Crossing continents and cultures

This led me on to thinking about the real challenge of involving citizens – that of enabling processes that do so across different geographical and socio-political contexts to ‘talk to each other’.

In a study for the Rockefeller Foundation, my colleagues and I pointed to the trade-offs between adopting a rigid framework to enable direct comparison/integration across multiple sites, and the need to remain flexible to local problem framings and perspectives. Proposing internationally-networked approaches to technology assessment, we argued for a combination of expert and lay inputs and flexible institutional designs to enable broad knowledge inputs.

In that study, we pointed to the IAASTD as an example of an internationally-organised attempt to broaden out the inputs to appraisal, with the result that the assessment highlighted the multi-functionality of agriculture. Alternatively, linking up smaller-scale, bottom-up technology assessment exercises might create space for yet more diverse voices.

Politics and institutions are vital for involving citizens

At the same time, international networked approaches need a responsive political system at which to target their outputs.

They also need functional institutions that can take them forward in policy, regulation and governance.

Without such institutions, the ‘institutional void’ that is highlighted at national levels for Brazil, Mexico and India in the GM Futuros working paper (pdf) will continue to act as an insurmountable barrier to meaningful citizen involvement at the international level.

Image: edited version of Tourism Office – Mijas – World map by ell-r-brown on Flickr (cc-by-sa)