We published a new paper!

Socio-economic research on genetically modified crops: a study of the literature“, this is the title of our new paper published in Agriculture and Human Values and co-authored by Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr, Brian Wynne and me.

This has been a long-lasting research, based on an extensive literature review (410 papers were analysed) on socio-economic impacts of GMOs.

Abstract: The importance of socio-economic impacts (SEI) from the introduction and use of genetically modified (GM) crops is reflected in increasing efforts to include them in regulatory frameworks. Aiming to identify and understand the present knowledge on SEI of GM crops, we here report the findings from an extensive study of the published international scientific peer-reviewed literature. After applying specified selection criteria, a total of 410 articles are analysed. The main findings include: (i) limited empirical research on SEI of GM crops in the scientific literature; (ii) the main focus of the majority of the published research is on a restricted set of monetary economic parameters; (iii) proportionally, there are very few empirical studies on social and non-monetary economic aspects; (iv) most of the research reports only short-term findings; (v) the variable local contexts and conditions are generally ignored in research methodology and analysis; (vi) conventional agriculture is the commonly used comparator, with minimal consideration of other substantially different agricultural systems; and (vii) there is the overall tendency to frame the research upon not validated theoretical assumptions, and to over-extrapolate small-scale and short-term specific results to generalized conclusions. These findings point to a lack of empirical and comprehensive research on SEI of GM crops for possible use in decision-making. Broader questions and improved methodologies, assisted by more rigorous peer-review, will be required to overcome current research shortcomings.

You can cite the paper as follows: Catacora-Vargas, G., Binimelis, R., Myhr, A.I. et al. Agric Hum Values (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9842-4

Impressions from our Stakeholders Seminar

As part of our project, during the 31st January and 1st February 2017 we held a stakeholders seminar in Tromsø, Norway on the topic: ‘Social and ‘Ethical Assessment in the Regulation of GMOs: Should we care?’

This two-day seminar aimed to explore the potential of a care ethics approach for social and ethical assessment in the regulation of GMOs. The objectives of the seminar were to a) better understand societal concerns and advance a systems approach for regulating GMOs, b) explore the extent to which a care ethics approach may provide useful guidance for operationalising the Norwegian Gene Technology Act and its requirement to assess sustainability, benefits to society and ethical justifiability, and c) to produce a short biosafety brief on the topic. Invited participants had a diverse range of profiles and interests in the issue, including farmers, processors, Norwegian regulators, consumer and environmental organisations, certification bodies and academic researchers.

After some introductory exercises that helped creating a friendly atmosphere, the first day focused on the presentation of perspectives and experiences from stakeholders in Spain, South Africa and Norway. We tried to innovate with the format, incorporating a very stimulating exercise after these presentations called “Collective Story Harvest“. Some of the academic researchers who were not asked to make any presentation were given instructions prior to the beginning of the seminar. Their role was to listen to the stakeholders experiential stories from the point of view of a specific theme we gave them. We chose 5 themes that are relevant for a care ethics framework: power, vulnerability, dependence, emotion and narrative. After listening to all the presentations, these participants shared with the rest of the group their lens analysis. They contributed to understand how these 5 concepts were enacted throughout the stories.

We learnt that power, vulnerability and dependencies were embedded in the structural aspects of the agri-food systems regarding, for example, the risk of GM contamination, the existence or inexistence of the necessary logistical facilities and even the way governance facilitates access to information. The latter aspect was actually key in many of the talks. Information and power are two sides of the same coin and lack of information availability regarding where GM crops are determines vulnerability and dependency. While paying attention to who is vulnerable, a participant noted those who take an alternative view to industrialised agriculture are definitely key victims, but also traditional crops and biodiversity. This is to say that not just people (such as farmers or citizens) are vulnerable  to the kind of choices that are being made through these power structures, but also ecosystems. She also noted the contextual nature of vulnerability, as South Africa and Spain (where GM crops are part of the rural realities) were clearly more vulnerable contexts than Norway.

Additionally, we also learnt about what role emotions can play in scientific analysis. Although the tendency is to think that emotion is the polar opposite of science, it is important to break these conventional boundaries and recognise that science is actually riddled with emotions. This recognition does not mean that we disregard science. It means that it is important to recognise that emotions are part of the realities studied by science and play a role in the stories. In fact, emotions were everywhere that day, channelled through words, images and non-verbal communication. For example, anger due to injustice came up in many different ways although was rarely directly expressed. One of the moments it was most present was during the description of the great difficulties organic farmers face to avoid GM contamination. Contrastingly, in a Norwegian presentation there was a picture of a consumer representative wearing a T-shirt with the following moto: “We Love the Norwegian Gene Technology Act”, representing how proud (and happy) certain Norwegians are about their current biotechnology legislation.

After this insightful exercise, we also had an intervention from policy making participants who also gave their thoughts on what the stakeholder participant experiences meant from a policy perspective. These participants highlighted how useful was for them to learn from experiences in countries that actually grow GMOs.

The second day focused on exploring the potential relevance of a care ethics approach for capturing the experiences and relevant issues we heard during the first day and incorporating these into regulatory assessment. We talked for hours and are currently preparing a policy brief on the topic that will be made public in some weeks.

As well as the good intellectual work, the workshop was also fun for networking and connecting with people. After the first day of work, we tried to chase the whales and the Northern Lights in an electric boat. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in this last mission but everyone enjoyed our time together and learnt a lot.

 

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.

Seminar on Critical Perspectives on GMOs at Cape Town University

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The last two weeks we have been in South Africa. It has been truly a very insightful experience that has helped us understand slightly better some of the complex realities that shape maize production in this amazing country. During the first week, we visited three very different small-scale farming communities in Kwazulu Natal, and for the second week we traveled to Cape Town to have our team meeting and to participate in two seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The first seminar was with postgraduate students conducting research related to GMOs in South Africa. It was a really interesting session that allowed us to share our own experiences with other researchers working on this topic from different perspectives and contexts. It also helped us us very much to better understand the functioning of the food systems where GM maize has been introduced in the country, the driving forces, circumstances and changes produced. Finally, we also focused on the ethical implications of our research, our challenges and strategies.

The second seminar was titled “Critical perspectives on GMOs”, and was organised by the Bio-economy Chair at the University of Cape Town.

critical-perspectives-posterThe seminar brought together different critical perspectives on the analysis and assessment of GMOs. The session was chaired by Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town and Maya’s PhD co-supervisor. First, Fern Wickson presented her paper on exploring the advantages of using feminist care ethics lens for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology. Following this presentation, the three other presentations explored the concept of resistance related to GM crops from very different approaches. In the second talk, I discussed the emergence of glyphosate-resistant Johnsongrass and the situation in relation with herbicide-resistant weeds in Argentina by analysing the driving forces behind the initial spread of GR johnsongrass, its impacts and the social, economic and environmental implications of response strategies, including the institutional conditions and constraints involved. Then, professor Johnnie van den Bergh from the Northwest University explored the insect resistance in Bt GM crops in South Africa, its consequences for the future use of Bt maize and for the conservation of heirloom seeds. It was very interesting to see many coincidences in the processes of resistance evolution in both cases, as well as in the responses given to it. Finally Amaranta Herrero introduced a paper we are currently working on the everyday forms of human resistance to the expansion of GM maize by exploring the often no-visible practices of farmers and other actors practicing non-GM agriculture in Spain.

The seminar ended with a vivid round of question and discussions, and a shared lunch. It was again a great opportunity for us to share our research and to learn from all the assistants at the seminar.

 

 

 

Paper Published…and therefore no longer ours

In an earlier post, I described a paper I was working on together with Assoc. Prof. Christopher Preston on the value of using a care ethics lens in the governance of emerging technologies, using agricultural biotechnology as an example. I am pleased to report that that paper has now been published. While the general content of the article was outlined in the earlier post, anyone wanting to read the work in all its glorious detail can access it here.

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Or at least, they can access it via that link until May 3rd. After that, all readers (or their supporting institutes) will have to pay to see the full content of the paper. Alternatively, for us as authors to make the content free to everyone through the open access mechanism, we will have to pay $US 1800.

The challenge of weighing up different criteria when publishing a paper was something I presented in a previous post. The topic of how to handle the competing demands of publishers wanting to recoup their costs (and make a profit) and authors wanting to reach as broad an audience as possible (and minimise their research costs) was also the topic of a lunch discussion here at GenØk this week. Are researchers ethically bound to respect the exclusive contract they sign with their publishers, or can it also be acceptable for them to take additional actions to enable their work to reach as broad an audience as possible?

As new players in facilitating scholarly networking and communication, such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate, gain users and popularity, publishers are increasingly having to police the way their papers are spread online. This is because while researchers routinely share pdfs of their papers online, this usually constitutes a breach of copyright because when academics publish in scholarly journals, they typically transfer their copyright to the journal’s publisher. This effectively means that they are no longer the owner of the article’s content.

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To help authors swallow this bitter pill, we are offered concessions, like the link I have shared in this post which gives everyone free access to the article for 50 days after the date of publication. So I suggest you access this link while you can, download the paper, read and enjoy it, because after May 3rd, my ideas are no longer mine to share as I wish. Unless of course I can find $US 1800 to pay the open access fee.

Perhaps my next paper should be about what a care ethics lens may reveal for the context of academic publishing.

Naturalness: A helpful or hopeless concept?

 

2013.02-402-294a_Pearl_millet,breeding,selfing_ICRISAT,Patancheru(Hyderabad,Andhra_Pradesh),IN_wed20feb2013In the public debate about agricultural biotechnologies and their acceptability, we often hear the claim from critics that these technologies are “not natural”. Such claims are typically dismissed by supporters of the technology who claim that agricultural practices have always involved human intervention into nature and the use of new technologies (be it plough, pesticide or irrigation system). In academic circles, the concept of naturalness has very much fallen out of fashion and is rarely invoked as a legitimate argument either for or against new technologies.

The problem seems to stem from the word ‘nature’ as it is commonly understood and employed today. If human beings are seen to be separate from ‘nature’, then anything they do can arguably be understood as “unnatural”, including all agricultural practices. If, however, we are seen to be a part of nature, then everything we do becomes “natural”, including all technological inventions such as plastic, nuclear weapons and transgenic organisms. This means we seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place in which the concept of naturalness appears completely useless for debating the desirability and virtues of different agricultural technologies. And yet, an implicit use of a concept is found throughout environmental debates because without it, concepts like pollution, contamination, the anthropocene, pristine nature etc would have little meaning. The concept of naturalness is therefore often invoked but rarely defined in environmental debates concerning new and emerging technologies. A new book published this year seeks to change this though. It does so by reimagining and redefining the idea of naturalness in ways that may allow it to have a legitimate place in debates about agricultural biotechnologies.

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Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking naturalness” by environmental philosopher Assoc. Prof. Svein Anders Noer Lie  lays a foundation for reclaiming the idea of naturalness in scientific, public and policy debates. Critiquing the dual view of our modern world in which on the one hand nature can be legitimately used and treated, taken apart and rearranged in any way humans prefer, and on the other hand, that the best way to protect nature from abuse is to create a separation from human interaction (i.e. we can either do anything and everything, or nothing), the book works to carve out a kind of third way by reclaiming the ancient idea that biological entities have ‘a nature’ that human beings can identify, respect and work together with.

As Assoc. Prof. Noer Lie writes in the preface, “When things are seen to have natures, there are good and bad ways to manipulate them – and because things have natures, it eventually becomes clear that there are good and bad consequences. Finally, it is because things have a nature that we can have an ethics regarding those things or beings in the first place.” The problem from his perspective is therefore that within the currently dominant ontology (or way of seeing the world) biological entitites are not seen to have any inherent nature. To counter this ‘passivist’ view, Noer Lie carefully outlines an alternative view – a dispositional ontology – in which entities are seen to have particular defining dispositions (i.e. powers, potentials or characteristics). This ontology proposes that the behaviour of beings is not entirely determined by outside factors (i.e. the being has no internal nature), nor is it entirely determined by inherent characteristics (i.e. the being is static in its expressed characteristics), but rather that beings have a set of dispositions (or range of possibilities) that become manifest in relationship with particular others and external conditions. As a simple illustrative example of this idea, a glass has the disposition to shatter, but this only becomes manifest when it meets the floor. Arguing that biological entitites have particular dispositions that they have historically evolved in relationship with ecosystem interactions, Noer Lie proposes that we can act in accordance with a being’s nature by identifying and taking these dispositions into account.

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In reclaiming the concept of naturalness through using a dispositional ontology to argue that biological entities have a nature that we can respect or disrespect, Noer Lie does not adopt the position that human beings should therefore acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature and leave it alone. Having previously acknowledged problems with the concept of intrinsic value in a relational worldview, he rather talks about the need to rethink the way we instrumentally use nature and proposes that we can actually do this most efficiently and ethically by working with rather than against the natural dispositions that a biological organism or system has.

This work aligns with arguments I have made elsewhere concerning the problem with calls to  ‘protect the environment’ and my argument that we should instead focus on the cultivation of our ecological Self. It also supports my argument that opposition to biotechnology (and other life technosciences) need not only be focused on the consequences of those technologies for human and environmental health, or on a defined set of universal ethical principles, but can also be ontologically derived, i.e. stemming from a different view of how the world works and the role of humans within it.

While Noer Lie uses most of the book Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking naturalness to focus on presenting a detailed philosophical grounding for his views and arguments, the final chapter takes up the question of what his concept of naturalness may mean for the stewardship of wilderness. It is also interesting for us to now consider, what could this approach mean for the stewardship of agriculture and the governance of emerging technologies?

Responsible Risk?

At the end of November, the Agri/Cultures project joined with Dr. Frøydis Gillund from GenØk Centre for Biosafety and Dr. Sarah Hartley from the University of Nottingham (with funding from the Norwegian Research Council BIOTEK 2021 program and the Leverhulme Trust) to organise the workshop “Responsible Risk? Achieving good governance of agricultural biotechnology”. Our interest in organising this event was to explore the relationship between risk assessment, ethics, and the emerging governance discourse of responsible research and innovation. Specifically, we were interested in whether these different approaches to governing the development and use of GMOs had anything to learn from each other and whether they could be integrated in such a way as to make the most of each approach.

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The event began with an open round table held at UiT the Arctic University of Norway. Here, three international experts in the fields of risk assessment (Prof. Erik Millstone), ethics (Sir Roland Jackson), and responsible research and innovation (Prof. Richard Owen) were invited to present their visions for good governance of agricultural biotechnology. These visions were then commented on by three national stakeholders from the Norwegian Environment Agency, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board and the Research Council of Norway, followed by an open discussion with the audience.

After a networking lunch, the organisers, the invited international speakers and national stakeholders, together with 5 other global experts invited to attend from across the different fields, retreated to the GenØk offices to spend the afternoon working on how to implement the visions that had emerged during the morning session.

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Here the focus was on working through questions such as:

  • Who has a role for putting this vision into practice? Which actors need to be engaged, and how?
  • What would need to be addressed? What would have to change?
  • Who has agency and power to bring this about?
  • What might be the obstacles or challenges with implementing such a vision and how can we overcome them?

Of course this is where the true difficulties were encountered! While it seems many in the group were very good visionaries, concrete ideas for how we can overcome some of the obstacles facing good governance of agricultural biotechnologies were a little harder to pin down. Interesting overlaps were observed though and it was clear that there was indeed potential to bring together the practices of risk assessment, ethics evaluation and the demands of responsible research and innovation in interesting and useful ways.

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The results of the workshop are therefore now being written up so that we can share the ideas that emerged with everyone in the near future. However, if anyone else out there would like to share their visions for good governance of agricultural biotechnology, or strategies and ideas for overcoming obstacles to enacting these visions, we would love to hear about them!

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!