The GM debate should not be closed down to what is rational, but opened up to multiple rationalities…. A response to Chris Whitty and colleagues


By Stephen Whitfield, PhD student, Institute of Development Studies (Knowledge, Technology and Society Team)

Genetically modified rice / BASF

In a recent commentary published in Nature, Chris Whitty (chief scientific adviser at the UK Department for International Development) and colleagues rightly argue that the (ever-rich and seemingly-unending) debate over genetically modified crops should be premised on an identification of agricultural and food system priorities. But their suggestion that this would make for a ‘rational’ debate is problematic.

The authors argue that a GM debate that is based on societal needs in Africa and Asia should result in the emergence of a very different emphasis than that which is currently characterised in the GM policies of Europe, because of their (questionable) presumption that issues of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition are prioritised within these continents.

Actually, their prescription has long been taken up by the organisations behind on-going GM crop development projects, including those identified in the paper, in both continents. Public crop breeding institutions, pro-GM lobby groups, and private multinationals alike have been vociferously making the case within GM debates that food insecurity, poverty, malnutrition, climate change, etc. are the ‘rational’ bases on which their technological, ‘pro-poor’ solutions should be supported.

In the case of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, the justification for investment in, and development of, the technology is the climate change-driven threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and food security of Africans. This statement is taken from a WEMA policy brief

“Persistent incidences of drought in Kenya have continued to threaten the food security situation and subjected millions of Kenyans to starvation… modern biotechnology provides a major opportunity to address perpetual maize shortages that are now being compounded by new threats triggered by climate change.”

But the rationality of such arguments belies the denial of the alternative rationalities that it frames out of the debate. Benessia and Barbiero have recognised the tendency for GMOs to be pushed within ‘grand narratives of urgency based on the assumption of a morally binding necessity to bypass any delaying post-normal knowledge production and decision-making process, in favour of a silver bullet’ (p.84). 

Of course Whitty and his colleagues are not arguing that rationality does, or must, come from the transgenic crop development projects themselves, but rather from ‘policy-makers’. But the assumption that there is an arbiter of rationality that presides over the GM debate (singular) and makes a final judgement on it is to grossly misrepresent the politics of GM.  Crop development projects themselves often progress largely on the wind of their own their own rationalisation of the problems and solutions; they are, to some extent, the makers of their own policy, as are non-governmental organisations, lobby groups and (to a certain extent) farmers and consumers.

Policy debates focus on particular issues – biosafety, importation, labelling etc. – and are not about agricultural and food system pathways, but about regulation, and not about weighing up risks and benefits, but about particular risks and/or particular benefits. There are multiple layers and multiple locations to the governance of GM.

Within these locations, attempts by individuals, bodies, or organisations – both pro and anti –  to narrow down the debate to what is ‘rational’ or not ‘emotional’ (to adopt an equally problematic term used by the authors) belies the value base for their own position and essentially, and politically, acts to frame out alternative values. Arguments are perpetually made by the governments of GMO exporting countries, for example, that biosafety regulations should be ‘science-based’ and limited to a concern with issues of health and environmental safety, and yet the motivation behind their position is trade.

But even these environmental and health risks for which there is a conventional, ‘scientific evidence’ base (and of course the societal risks of GM are not and should not be limited to these alone) should not be void of debate about the completeness of knowledge, underlying assumptions and values, and interpretations.  The decision by the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health to ban the importation of GM foods, which the authors describe as an emotional decision, was in fact underpinned by an interpretation of a widely criticised (but nevertheless peer-reviewed) scientific study; highlighting quite clearly the ambiguities of the concept of ‘science-based’ regulation and the reality that there is not one objective evidence-based rationality, but multiple evidence-bases and multiple rationalities.

Similarly the relative and absolute benefits of GM crops are negotiable. Metrics of efficacy and preferences for alternative pathways are not easily categorised as ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’, but might emerge from different rationalities, experiences and evidences. As Dominic Glover, amongst others, has shown, for example, the idea that a technology is pro-poor is not a ‘rational’ evaluation, but is actually highly political and based on assumptions.

In considering the GM debate from the problem-based ‘end of the telescope’, as the authors make a case for, it is important to recognise that not everyone’s telescopes are necessarily the same or pointing in the same direction. The risks faced by smallholder farmers may not be limited to food insecurity, poverty, malnutrition and climate change and these risks themselves may be experienced in different ways by different individuals and in different locations. There is a prior set of debates to be had about the priorities for change in agriculture and these must engage with the multiple mechanisms through which contemporary challenges have been created (e.g. opening up beyond the environmental determinism of climate change-driven drought), and the multiple projections of future change (e.g. opening up to multiple directions of climatic change).

I would make the case, therefore, that DFID’s role in the GM debates is not simply to invest in the development of those technologies that emerge as appropriate, but to invest in the broader governance of agriculture, food systems, and technologies in both Africa and Asia, such that capacities for deliberation and debate around direction and appropriateness can be built. These debates are necessarily for everyone, not to be narrowed down to what is ‘rational’ but to be opened-up to multiple rationalities.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.