Responses to frequently asked questions on genetically-modified crops and development

GM Rice / BASF / Flickr Creative Commons

By Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS Centre

Questions are never far from the headlines about how the world can farm more fairly, sustainably and productively. What is meant by these qualities varies greatly – including differing ways to raise income for poor farmers, improve nutrition, reduce environmental and health impacts or provide more food to feed growing populations. Almost irrespective of how to think about ‘the problem’, however, GM crops are often presented as a vital part of the solution. Fierce criticism is often dished out to any voices raising concerns – labelling them ‘anti-technology’ environmentalists, irrational media, nervous regulators or an ill-informed public.

But whatever side one is on, this kind of debate can easily miss the single most important fact. ‘GM’ is not one thing. And there exist a wide variety of other innovations – social and organisational as well as scientific and technological – for achieving the same ends (whatever these are). What is most irrational, is to focus disproportionately on ‘GM’ alone. Even more misleading, is to pretend that the issues are just about ‘risk’ – or that the solutions can be determined solely by ‘sound science’ or ‘evidence based policy’. In the end, the answers depend on the questions. Science and evidence have absolutely crucial roles to play, But they are necessary, not sufficient.
The reasons why some GM technologies are often so strongly favoured by seed producers over other innovations, is more to do with commercial competition and profit than any other factor. It does not imply complete rejection of such interests, to see that the issues for society at large are much wider. The real issues are over which directions for innovation should be encouraged and which discouraged. This is not just technical, but a matter for ethical values, political judgement and clear democratic accountability. It is these qualities that are often most endangered by simplistic fixations with ‘GM’.

The brief comments below respond to some questions about the part wealthier countries play in blocking or enabling GM technology, and the role that science and the public play in shaping decisions about GM and other innovations. To delve further in to these issues, take a look at the 10+ years of research in the STEPS Centre’s Biotechnology Research Archive.

Why are GM crops stuck in the pipeline of regulatory approval?

The image of GM crops being ‘stuck in a pipeline’ presumes the role of regulation is simply to approve new technologies or products. In fact, as shown by a series of European Environment Agency studies, far from being over-restrictive, the history of European and wider regulation is at least as much one of being over-permissive.

Is the EU falling behind other regions in approving GM crops?

The idea that the EU is ‘falling behind’ presumes that there is just one direction of technological advance in this field (and that this is GM). In fact, innovation is at least as much a question of choosing directions to go in, as of how fast to proceed in any one of them.

GM is not the only biotech solution on offer. Marker-assisted selection and other genomic techniques offer important opportunities for enhancing conventional breeding through biotechnology. Investment in long-term, local, context-specific breeding and crop development programmes is needed.

This point is underscored by a major recent international assessment:

What role can science play in influencing policy and public opinion?

It is a foundational principle of science to provide a rigorous arena for engaging contrasting understandings and upholding the value of scepticism.

Like other groups of citizens and organised interests, the diversity of different kinds of science can of course exert influence in many different ways, both on policymakers and on wider public opinions. This is perfectly legitimate – but it should be recognised as a political activity and not something undertaken in the name of ‘science’ as a whole, let alone of ‘objective truth’.

When any “science” organisation invokes the authority of the scientific process in general in favour of any particular technological product, it is being politically partisan. Frequently associated claims to objectivity are also spurious. The result is not only an undermining of reasoned democratic debate, but – by being less than trustworthy – amounts to nothing less than a betrayal of science itself.

Science as a process is equally implicated in a variety of contending innovation trajectories (see above), no one of which is inherently more ‘scientific’ than others.

The “Emerging Biotechnologies” report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is a good illustration of this point.

There often exist more effective innovation pathways that do not rely primarily on science-intensive products. When they advocate science-intensive approaches as preferential to these, then scientists are also being more generally politically partisan.  In any case, scientific (and wider expert) understandings of the world can never definitively determine any single uniquely rational ‘way forward’. The available evidence always admits a variety of contrasting interpretations.

Is the EU’s treatment of GM is having a detrimental impact on developing countries?

In fact, the resources deployed in favour of adopting wider use of GM of various kinds dwarf those arrayed directly against it.

In some circumstances, some farmers have benefited from GM crop technologies; while others had bad experiences or were by-passed altogether.

A STEPS Working Paper by Dominic Glover (2009) shows economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, GM seed start-up costs and technology fees are sometimes too expensive for poorer farmers, and major adopters are usually richer, with more land. Meanwhile the institutional and policy environment is vital: without support, credit and sustained backing, new technologies often fail.

How crucial is public opinion in the GM debate?

In this debate, as in other areas of political life, public opinion is crucial. Science and innovation present political choices, rather than one-track imperatives which supposedly have no alternatives. It is normally the case that business takes a pride in meeting consumer needs. And governments like that of the UK are usually very supportive of this. But in the field of GM, the pattern is typically oddly different. When consumers express a preference for other kinds of food or agriculture, the mantra is that they should change to fit the needs of producers, rather than the other way around. This is not only bad economics, it is undemocratic. Citizens should have a crucial say in decisions about the directions taken by innovations, including GM.

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This article was originally posted on The Crossing.