Ronald J. Herring
Bio-safety regimes empower officials over farmers. Scarce public resources are wasted in surveillance and control.
Genetic engineering in agriculture raises contentious politics unknown in other applications of molecular technology. The pivot is risk. In pharmaceuticals, medicine and industrial applications, recombinant DNA technology has been widely accepted as providing useful tools; in agriculture, products using these same tools have been coded as producing “GMOs”, evoking almost universally an aura of unique risk and special regulation. Science is invoked and attacked as providing sufficient evidence for assuring safety in the use of GMOs.
Though associated with wealthy economies historically, genetically engineered crops grown in “developing countries” in 2012 exceeded total acres grown in the so-called developed countries for the first time. India was the 16th country to approve a genetically engineered crop: Bt cotton in 2002. Controversy over India’s second Bt crop — brinjal — was intense, centred on the adequacy of science in assessing risk. Risk is an elastic and elusive concept. In common use, risk is part of everyday life but seldom formalised.
In normal science, risk has a precise but deceptively simple meaning: risk equals the probability of some hazard. Anyone booking a flight, taking prescription drugs or scheduling surgery recognises potential hazards. We regularly take some risks because of expected benefits, or because the risk of doing nothing is higher. The question is always: compared to what? Ideally, regulation of any technology would reach some threshold of acceptable risk — balanced with benefits — for a whole society.
Conceptually simple, these comparisons are devilishly difficult. Often neither hazard nor probability is known, or cannot be measured. The economist Jack Knight wrote in the 1920s that this situation is one of uncertainty, not risk. In the world of uncertainty, risk is of necessity a social construction. The common cellphone is a good example: there is some evidence of hazard, no proof of hazard and no estimate of probabilities, but such obvious utility that hypothetical risk is discounted by nearly everyone.
Science cannot assess uncertainty, nor determine appropriate risk preferences; these are of necessity political decisions. For agricultural biotechnology, the precondition for risk regulation would ask of science: do transgenic plants produce more hazards than cultivars bred by other means? Though there may well be new hazards, none has been demonstrated in mainstream science to date.
The European Commission Directorate-General for Research assessed available regulatory science for environmental and food-safety risks in A Decade of EU-funded GMO Research (2001-2010): “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, continued…