GM Food and the precautionary principle

Genetically modified rice plants

Golden-rice-plants_IRRI“Precaution does not necessarily mean a ban.
It simply urges that time and space be found to get things right.”

Professor Andy Stirling, writing in the Guardian


The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee is carrying out an inquiry into genetically modified (GM) foods and the way in which these are regulated in Europe under the precautionary principle.

STEPS Centre Co-Director Professor Andy Stirling gave oral evidence on 19 November following our written submission to the inquiry, which was signed by 19 academic experts in this area.

The Centre has long-argued that a simplistic ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ stance on GM crops leaves little room for a more informed and balanced debate not only about this technology, but a range of alternative innovations too. There are many advanced non-GM techniques and a multitude of non-technological solutions that tend to be eclipsed by the restrictive focus on GM.

The precautionary principle opens the door to many strategies for coping with these issues. It recognises that even the most confident science rarely compels a single solution. And many uncertainties and ambiguities further underscore the importance of more accountable discussion of contending values and priorities. Too often these open-ended complexities tend to get closed down, as if they were merely about ‘risk’

In these terms, precaution is not about blocking technologies, but steering innovation to more effectively favour of human health, environmental integrity and social well-being, and providing a counterweight to otherwise dominant incumbent interests.

Acknowledging the scope for systematic deliberation over values, priorities and alternatives in the context of uncertainty, precaution broadens out risk regulation to allow greater consideration for a wider plurality of issues, options, perspectives and scenarios. It allows the reshaping of established trajectories and a greater focus on qualities of diversity, flexibility and responsiveness.

In short, precaution expresses the fundamental principle that — in innovation just as in science itself — reasoned scepticism fosters greater quality.

Innovation: managing risk,  not avoiding it

GCSA report: On 19 November the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walport launches his inaugural annual report, focussing on innovation and risk. Prof. Stirling has contributed a chapter to the report, related to the evidence submitted to this inquiry.

Andy Stirling (centre) at Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry 19 Nov 2014
Science and Technology Commitee inquiry

>>The STEPS Centre’s written evidence to the inquiry signed by 19 academics

>>Prof. Andy Stirling, Co-Director of the STEPS Centre (centre in the picture above) gave oral evidence on 19 November 2014,  during the fourth inquiry session focussing on social and political considerations in the regulation of emerging technologies with particular attention to how the precautionary principle might guide regulation under conditions of uncertainty.
Watch this session on Parliament TV 
Watch the all the sessions: Session 1 (15 Oct) | Session 2 (29 Oct)| Session 3 (5 Nov) | Session 4 (19 Nov)

>>Guest blog by Rupert Read: The precautionary principle must be retained, unless we are willing to be reckless with our common future (18 Nov)

>>Follow the story of GM and the precautionary principle on Storify:

The precautionary principle: selected reading from Andy Stirling

A selection of publications from Andy Stirling on the precautionary principle. GM potato / Photo: BASFFor a fuller listing, see his publications page.

Key resources: selected reading from other authorsgoldenrice


The STEPS Centre’s work on GM and biotechnology around the world

A selection of our work on how science, policy and politics interact around biotechnology.

The Politics of GM Food: Crop experimentRisk, science and public trust

Why do controversies such as BSE and GM food throw British governments and business off balance? This briefing on how to get out of the GM impasse and how to avoid these problems in future, remains as vital and current today as when it was written by Alister Scott, Frans Berkhout and Ian Scoones (Director of the STEPS Centre) in 1999.

The Politics of GM Food: Risk, science and public trust (PDF) ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme (1999). The Politics of GM Food: Risk, Science &Public Trust, Special Briefing No 5.

Medicine vendor, Central AfricaBiotechnology Research Archive

10+ years of research into GM crops, development and the food crisis, under four themes:

  1. Poverty reduction & food security: impacts of GM crops
  2. Regulating GM crops
  3. The role of the private sector and corporate control
  4. Public participation and the politics of policy


Books, blogs, media, articles

Media enquiries

Julia Day, STEPS Centre Head of Communications
Email: [email protected] | +44 7974 209148