Systems perspective on GMOs at the EASST Conference

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Last week we attended the European Association of the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in Barcelona. It was an enormous conference (around 2000 participants) which was exciting but it also made it challenging to stay on top of everything that was going on. Conferences such as this one are useful platforms for networking with people who are working on similar issues in order to build and strengthen academic communities.

The interdisciplinary nature of our project makes us somehow academically promiscuous in the way that we do not belong to a single academic community of reference, but rather we transit and have conversations with people from a multiplicity of academic worlds that speak to different dimensions of the project. EASST is one of these communities we transit, as it contains part of the academic community who does Science and Technology Studies (STS). For us this is a very interesting academic community to be in contact with since GM crops have a major technoscientific component.  The project hugely benefits from dialogues and reflections related to the roles technoscience plays within the GMO socio-political controversies.

We participated in a track called “Governance of agricultural biotechnologies”, facilitated by Andrew Stirling and with other very knowledgeable speakers such as Robert Smith, Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr and Brian Wynne. Our presentation was about how a system perspective can be useful when assessing and regulating GMOs. This presentation stemmed from one of our papers:

Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment.

For this presentation we focused on the cartographies that we have been producing over recent months, which illustrate interesting differences between GM, chemically intensive, certified organic and agroecological systems.

The audience seemed to really enjoy the presentation and one participant said she felt that we were developing – a very much needed – ‘applied STS’. 🙂

GMOs: Assessing Social and Ethical Aspects

In addition to my work as a researcher, I also serve on several national and international committees. This includes a position as member of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board.

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The role of this board is to both encourage public discussion and debate and to provide advice to the Norwegian government on issues related to biotechnology, and particularly on social and ethical issues. The work of this advisory board covers both the use of biotechnology in medical applications and the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. The board is made up of a diverse range of professionals with very different perspectives, beliefs and areas of expert knowledge. Our discussions are always extremely interesting, informative and very often involve canvassing a range of issues and different positions on controversial topics of public interest. For example, since I was appointed as a member, we have come with advice on topics as diverse as whether single women should have State supported access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), whether parents should be allowed to perform genetic testing on their children, whether sperm donors should be subject to genetic testing, how the regulation of genetic testing for medical research may differ from that for clinical applications and whether Norway should accept GM crop products for import. Our recommendations on the topics we discuss are always made publically available (in Norwegian) and when the Board is divided in its views, the positions of each Board member are made clear in the recommendation.

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As part of its work and in addition to the meetings of its members, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board also regularly arranges public events, lectures and seminars. On June 8th, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a breakfast seminar in Oslo on the topic of assessing social and ethical aspects of GMOs, which was videoed and is now available online. In this talk, I drew on the research we have been performing in The Agri/Cultures Project and sought to explain why assessing social and ethical issues around GMOs is important, as well as show different ways in which this can be approached and argue that we need to be considering these matters at various points along the innovation chain.

What was particularly interesting for me was to see how the announcement of this seminar was treated on social media. Before I even got a chance to give my talk, groups on Facebook and users of Twitter were already dismissing the content as biased and irrelevant, as well as criticising me and GenØk Centre for Biosafety for being anti-GMO activists. Although none of the net trolls seemed to have the courage to attend the event, actually hear my thoughts on the topic and have a face to face conversation with me, it is amazing how the GMO debate continues to generate such strong emotional reactions amongst people. Indeed, in my talk I try to highlight how this emotional response is indicative of the importance of addressing social and ethical dimensions of the technology. I also challenged this approach to the debate by suggesting that we need to move out of the current trench warfare approach of pro-anti GMO camps dug in and defending their positions by throwing bombs at the other, and actually start to have more sophisticated conversations in which we look at concrete cases, contexts and empirical research. This is becoming increasingly important as biotechnology is now diversifying rapidly through the use of genome editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and we need to carefully consider what we mean by the term ‘GMO’ and whether all biotechnology techniques should be considered alike in terms of their potential social and environmental impacts, ethical aspects and regulation.

Responsible Governance of (New) Agricultural Biotechnologies

In an earlier post, I described an international workshop we held in November 2015 with experts on risk assessment, responsible innovation and ethics of agricultural biotechnology. Happily, I can now report that our learning from that worskhop has been available for everybody in the form of a publication in the journal PLoS Biology.

In the published paper, entitled “Essential Features of Responsible Governance of Agricultural Biotechnology” we argue that changes to the governance of agricultural biotechnologies have become particularly urgent as new genomic tools and products (such as CRISPR-Cas9, RNAi, synthetic biology, and GM animals) continue to emerge and controversies surrounding GM crops remain unresolved.

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What we have seen is that much of the current debate around these new genomic tools and products is focused on whether or not they fit within existing regulatory frameworks. This is no doubt a very important debate that will have significant consequences no matter which way nations decide. However, it is also important to question whether or not the existing regulatory frameworks are sufficient for addressing the issues that continue to generate controversy in this field. Since they have not been capable of allieviating controversy around GM crops, we argue that the new wave of biotechnologies provides a useful opportunity to revise not just our specific regulatory frameworks but also our general approach to governance so as to make it more socially robust and ethically responsible.

Integrating findings from both our dedicated workshop and several decades of work within social studies of science and procedural ethics, we propose five features that are essential to advance responsible governance of agricultural biotechnology. These essential features are:

  1. Commitment to candour
  2. Recognition of underlying values and assumptions
  3. Involvement of a broad range of knowledge and actors
  4. Consideration of a range of alternatives
  5. Preparedness to respond.

Each of these are outlined in more detail in the paper, where we also give specific examples of how social scientists have been working to advance these features in technology governance. In doing so we seek to show how ideas from several fields can be fruitfully integrated into a common framework to advance scientifically and socially responsible forms of governance for both existing and emerging agricultural biotechnologies.

Published in an open access journal, we hope that you might find this paper interesting and encourage you to share it with friends and colleagues. Of course, we would also welcome your questions and feedback!

Assessing the Ethical Justifiability of Agricultural Biotechnology?

Later this week I am heading to Montreal for the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (S.Net). At the conference I will present a paper that I have been working on together with Dr. Christopher Preston (an environmental philosopher from the University of Montana) on what happens if we look at agricultural biotechnologies through the lens of feminist care ethics.

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This is part of the work of the Agri/Cultures project to contribute to the requirement within the Norwegian Gene Technology Act to assess GMOs for their ethical justifiability. Not an easy task!

In today’s political decision-making on emerging technosciences, two frameworks dominate the landscape of ethical assessment: consequentialist and deontological approaches.

Within consequentialist approaches, a technology is judged to be good or bad on the basis of its consequences. This is typically tied to utilitarianism, in which the aim is to maximise the utility or the good (e.g. often referred to as creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number). Within this approach, a technology would be assessed as ethically justifiable based on the consequences of its development, uptake and use.

In contrast, deontological approaches to assessments of what is good or bad, right or wrong, are based on the actions themselves, rather than on their consequences. Within this approach, ethical judgements are based on whether the action follows appropriate principles, rules or norms. In our case, this can be interpreted to mean that the ethical justifiability of a technology would consider the extent to which its creation, uptake and/or use violates social norms, rules or principles.

There are, however, other approaches that have received less attention. The first of these is virtue ethics, which was the dominant ethical framework applied in pre-modern societies and focuses on the underlying attitude rather than the action. That is, an ethical assessment within this approach does not primarily consider the nature of the action, or the consequences of the action, but the attitude that motivates the action. Virtue ethics is going through somewhat of a revival now as an increasing number of scholars explore what it may offer the range of socio-ecological challenges facing the modern world.

The approach that I have started exploring in the current paper though, is that based on an ethics of care. A ethics of care comes out of feminist scholarship and emphasises the importance of the concrete and context specific relationships that people are engaged in when making an ethical assessment. In this sense, an action is not considered right or wrong based on whether it follows agreed rules/norms, or solely on utilitarian calculations of consequences, but rather on how it impacts relationships. For our purposes, this includes not only relationships between human beings, but also relationships with and between other types of beings as well. Furthermore, feminists emphasise ethical assessments as not only involving a set of rational calculations, but also importantly involving emotional reactions.

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In the developing paper, we outline six key themes within feminist theories and care ethics – relationality, contextuality, dependence, power, affect, and narrative – and show how considering emerging technologies through the lens of these themes can shine a light on a number of salient issues that are typically missed by the dominant and largely consequentialist risk assessment frame used in political decision-making today. We also argue that the care ethics lens is a better fit when technologies are understood not simply as devices designed to create a certain end experience for a user but as transformative systems that smuggle in numerous social and political interests. Exploring the advantages of these feminist care ethics themes for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology, we show how this lens might have anticipated the very questions that have proved themselves to be the sticking points for GM crops.

For example, a focus on relationality allows you to see how the relationships between farmers and seeds change in significant ways with patented GM technologies. A focus on contextuality opens for different countries, regions and contexts to make different assessment choices. Being attentive to issues of dependence and power allows friction points such as concentration and monopolies within agri-food systems to be deemed relevant for the assessment. Opening for affect allows emotional responses to the roll out of these crops to be taken seriously, while a commitment to narrative encourages people to tell their own stories, which can reveal the underlying worldviews and socio-technical imaginaries that are often in conflict in GM debates.

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Through the paper we therefore argue that applying a care ethics lens can significantly broaden the frame of appraisal processes used for the governance of emerging technologies and usefully grant legitimacy to questions and concerns that are prominent in public discourse but typically left out of practices of risk assessment.

Hopefully we get some great feedback on the  paper at the conference and we would absolutely welcome comments and interactions with our ideas here as well!