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

Hot Topics at the 13th Meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity

During the first two weeks in December, Rosa and I attended the 13th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun Mexico. This also included meetings on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.

Decisions at these meetings are made by consensus and with over 190 countries signatory to the CBD, that means long and difficult negotiations in which the final result is usually a heavy compromise in which the best that can often be hoped for is that all parties are ‘equally unhappy’ with the results.

This year, the meeting had the tagline of “Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-being” and indeed the concept of mainstreaming biodiversity was very prevalent. It took quite a while to make sense of this idea and what it was being used to imply. Officially, the idea seems to mean that because a vast range of human activities affect biodiversity and financial support for its conservation is waning, there is a need to embed the work across all sectors and policies. What I also noticed though was that significant emphasis was being placed on how to use the current economic system to support biodiversity conservation. In that sense, it felt like how to move biodiversity conservation into the mainstream capitalist economic agenda.

In addition to the idea of mainstreaming, some of the hot topics of debate that I followed during the meeting were:

Guidance on Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Organisms (or Living Modified Organisms as they are referred to under the Cartagena Protocol)

Here the focus of the debate was largely around whether to extend the work of Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) and develop additional guidance for new applications, such as GM fish and synthetic biology. The AHTEG has spent over 5 years developing a guidance document for risk assessment of GMOs and the quality of its work was heavily disputed at the meeting. This debate was intensified by the fact that the guidance was published before the parties had agreed to endorse it. Some parties were extremely angry about this and against even acknowledging the guidance as a useful document. They were therefore certainly not willing to support any extension of the current AHTEG or its mandate. In the end it was agreed that the current AHTEG would be dissolved but an online forum and alternative process for gathering information on the information gaps and needs for further guidance would be put in place.

Synthetic Biology, and particularly Gene Drives

Much of the work leading up to this meeting related to synthetic biology had been around the development of a definition. While a definition was ultimately adopted that supported synthetic biology as an extension and acceleration of modern biotechnology, debate remained over whether the definitional work should continue in an intersessional AHTEG, specifically to develop inclusion and exclusion criteria. Some parties felt that this was necessary to clarify the concept, while others felt it was simply a delaying tactic to avoid the much needed work on risk assessment guidance and criteria. Ultimately it was decided that the AHTEG on synthetic biology would continue and have a mandate to discuss, among other things, inclusion and exclusion criteria for the definition. Under synthetic biology, the topic of gene drives was also an extremely hot issue of debate. Civil society organisations attending the meeting had called for a moratorium on gene drives until effective biocontainment and regulatory processes could be put in place. Meanwhile, organisations and industry supportive of biotechnology development were present in force (including sponsoring at least 35 students to be present at all discussions and side events concerning synthetic biology, gene drives and/or biosafety and loudly express their positive positions towards the technology). This generated quite a lot of tension and heated debates within these side events and caused one of the most prominent proponents to be ejected from the meeting for aggressive and threatening behavior.

Benefit Sharing of Digitalized Genetic Sequence Information

Another hot issue was how the rapid development of digitalized genetic sequence information may undermine the Nagoya protocol and its emphasis on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources and their utilization. The idea here is that nation states currently have sovereign ownership over genetic resources in their territory and a right to benefits generated from the use of them. Also, it is recognized that indigenous people often have in depth knowledge of plant and animal properties (and have played a key role in their evolution) and that if companies develop products that extract benefit from this, then there should be a prior and informed consent for use and mutually agreed terms for fair and equitable benefit sharing. This was seen as threatened by the development of digitalized genetic sequences that could be easily shared around the globe without any negotiations of requirements for access and benefit sharing. This topic proved difficult to handle in the negotiations because it spanned the CBD, the Nagoya protocol and the group working with synthetic biology. Ultimately a plan was made for further work on this topic, however, some parties were dissatisfied that the process of international negotiations was grindingly slow in comparison to the rate of the technology development.

While the debates on these topics were extremely interesting to follow, one thing that really struck me was a feeling of hypocrisy at this meeting. This was not only the hypocrisy of having a meeting about conserving the world’s spectacular biodiversity in the extremely homogenized and human dominated and hotel saturated location of Cancun. It was also connected to the carbon emissions generated by having over 6000 people fly in for the meeting and the terrible quality of food available at the event, which surely came from industrial monocultures and failed to support local produce or agrobiodiversity. Another striking element was the lack of civil society protest. While there were some small demonstrations of indigenous people and one award ceremony for the worst beha
ved parties and companies, in general, there was very little public protest, action or even visibility. Rather, civil society organizations were directly engaged in the process and participating by organizing formal events and discussions within the architecture of the meeting. This is a stark contrast to the international negotiations around another key global environmental issue – climate change – where civil society has an extremely strong, loud and colourful presence. This was surprising since biodiversity loss is an extremely serious global concern that has already reached crisis proportions. While I also held a formal side event at this year’s meeting (on the concept of synbiodiversity), if I attend in future years I will also seriously consider engaging in and coordinating awareness raising actions outside the formal arrangements available for the meeting. The loss of the world’s biodiversity is just too important to leave to the negotiations alone.

Gallery

COPMOP8 in Cancun

On Sunday, the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP-MOP8 of the Cartagena Protocol and COP-MOP2 of the Nagoya Protocol began in Cancun. Fern and I are attending the meetings and participating in some of the sessions that take place in parallel to the negotiations. Here are some of the first impressions.

El domingo empezó en Cancún la 13ª reunión de la conferencia de las partes (COP 13) de la Convención de Diversidad Biológica, la COP-MOP8 del Protocolo de Cartagena y la COP-MOP2 del Protocolo de Nagoya. Fern y yo estamos asistiendo a las reuniones y participando en algunos de los actos que se realizan en paralelo a las negociaciones. Aquí podéis ver algunas de las primeras impresiones.

Confusing statistics regarding GM maize in Spain

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I am currently trying to compile statistics on GM, conventional and organic maize in Spain. Article 31 of Directive 2001/18/EC establishes that Member States shall establish registers for recording the location of GMOs, and make them  known to the public. This means compiling statistics on the situation should be a quite straightforward task. As a person involved in the GM debate in Spain for long time though, I know it is not.

As information to the public, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture publishes yearly statistics on the surface area cultivated with GM maize (the only authorised GM crop in Europe) on the level of Autonomous Communities. This information is very far from being a useful public register, for example in terms of being the appropriate scale of information to prevent contamination. This data is also produced according to what the biotechnology companies declare as being sold (in units of 50.000 seeds) and this quantity is multiplied by 1,7, which is considered the “normal” sowing dose per hectare. In contrast, the regional Agriculture departments publish data based on what variety the farmers state they grow when applying for the CAP subsidies. Differences in the figures presented by these two levels of the agriculture authorities are as high as 66%, as reported by a coalition of NGOs and farmers unions linked to agriculture and environment in Spain.

Different hypotheses for the discrepancies could be posed: a) Either farmers do not declare the variety they will grow (deliberatively or because they do not know or they have not decided when applying for the subsidies), or b) The biotech companies are exaggerating the numbers so it looks like adoption rates in Spain are much higher than the actual figures. Both (and other possibilities) could also be happening at the same time.

In the graph below you can see the number of hectares of GM maize in Catalonia depending on the data source, and the difference (%) between the two data sets for each year. A similar situation can be found for Aragón.

Surface of GM maize in Catalonia depending on data source (1998-2015)

Funnily enough, it is also not easy to get statistics on organic maize in Spain. This is because up until 3 years ago,  the official agricultural statistics did not differentiate the surface area cultivated with maize on its own, simply registering it under the umbrella category of “grains”.

Struggling with how to get an accurate picture of how much GM vs organic maize cultivation is taking place and how this has changed over time leaves me also questioning how it might be possible based on these poor registers to assess in a reliable way what is happening and how coexistence is playing out in Spain.

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs: Press release by IFOAM Europe

IFOAM Europe just released the following press release.

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs

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BRUSSELS, 14 January 2016 – IFOAM EU has published a position paper on new genetic engineering techniques, ahead of the legal interpretation of the European Commission, expected by March 2016. The European organic food and farming sector considers that there are no legal or technical reasons to bypass the GMO legislation and to exempt these new breeding techniques from risk assessment and other legal requirements that apply to GMOs, and warns of severe economic consequences if some of these techniques are deregulated by the European Commission.

“New techniques bearing the same potential risks as the GMOs currently on the market should not be used in organic farming nor released into the environment, even less be exempted from risk assessment and traceability”, warns Christopher Stopes, IFOAM EU President.

“Any attempt to exempt these new genetic engineering techniques from risk assessment, traceability and labelling would create havoc on the food, feed and seeds markets, and would backfire like the attempt to introduce GMOs in Europe backfired 20 years ago”, adds Thomas Fertl, IFOAM EU Vice-President.

“The Commission could let consumers and the market decide, but the right to choose can only exist if there is a traceability and labelling system in place, like for currently labelled GMOs. Without traceability, it would be impossible to know if and where such products would be in the environment and in the food chain”, he adds.

“We need innovation in the plant breeding sector and new agronomic approaches that make the most of the diversity of plant genetic resources, but innovation does not have to resort to genetic engineering techniques that can lead to unpredictable side effects, and whose benefits will mainly go the companies that will market them”, adds Eric Gall, IFOAM EU Policy Manager.

The so-called “new plant breeding techniques” addressed in the position paper, such as cisgenesis or CRISPR/Cas, interfere at the sub-cellular and genomic level. Therefore, IFOAM EU considers that they would not be compatible with the principles of organic farming and that they should not be used in organic farming.

Deregulation of new breeding techniques would threaten the freedom of choice of breeders, farmers and consumers. If some of these new techniques are excluded from the scope of the legislation on GMOs, the organic sector would face a situation where genetic modification techniques excluded from organic farming could be released into the environment and the food chain while being exempt from any traceability and labelling requirements.

Read the new IFOAM EU position paper

For more information please contact:

Eric Gall, Policy Manager
+32 (0) 2 280 68 43 / +32 491 07 25 37, [email protected]

Laura Ullmann, Communications Manager
+32 (0)2 808 7991 / +32 (0) 486 88 52 12, [email protected]

Or visit www.ifoam-eu.org

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.

IMG_1697   IMG_1690

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.

Rational+vs+Emotional

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!

Black spring for bees: Press note by Bee Life

Our project partners Bee Life, the European Beekeeping Coordination just released the following press release.

Brussels, 20.03.2015

Black spring for bees: National governments blocking appropriate risk assessment of pesticides on bees

On the 20th of March, while spring is coming, representatives from the national ministries and from the European Commission met in Brussels at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health[1]. Since 2013, they have been negotiating on the EFSA Guidance[2], the most appropriated science-based protocol enabling to keep out of the market toxic pesticides to bees and to other pollinators. While the Commission (DG SANTE) has pushed for the Guidance implementation, the position of national governments has continued unclear and not transparent, leading to a deadlock of the decision. Bee Life European Beekeeping Coordination urges the national governments to say YES to the EFSA Guidance on bees.

The new EU legislative framework on pesticides[3] obliges the pesticide industry to furnish much more data on bee toxicology when applying for an active substance or formulation.

With the purpose to enforce in an adequate and harmonized way the EU law, the EFSA, following the European Commission mandate, has published the Guidance on bees. This Guidance is the result of an independent and scientific work. If approved by member states, this scientific methodology would enable risk evaluators to assess properly the set of data and application dossier provided by the pesticide industry. Such methodology would support political decision-making on pesticides at EU and national level.

Despite the efforts of the European Commission (DG SANTE) to take better into account the risks of pesticides to pollinators, member states continue blocking the approval of the EFSA Guidance. Based on the fact that the Guidance would improve our understanding of the risks and effects of pesticides on pollinators and on the environment, and that it would offer a harmonized interpretation of the risks in the EU, Bee Life questions the fact of such blockage by national governments.

Bee Life urges member states to take a decision in favor of quality of life and public health. We urge member states to keep a critical eye on the arguments and pressure of the agrochemical industry that tries in an insidious way to oppose to the EFSA Guidance.

Bee Life will continue extremely active in following this dossier and will work until the European law on the risks of pesticides to pollinators is properly implemented. This means until the EFSA Guidance is approved and enforced.

Francesco Panella, president of Bee Life said: “It is sad to see that science is everywhere within the European legal logic until it meets the economic interests of member states or pesticide industry. Besides, this blocking shows a worrying fact: member states do not trust the scientific competence of the EFSA. For Bee Life, the sooner the Guidance is implemented, the earlier the marketing of pesticides toxic for pollinators will be avoided. The support of every citizen will be essential to maintain pollinators on European territory and to ensure the quality of life all of us.”

EN VERSION: http://bee-life.eu/en/article/82/

FR: VERSION: http://bee-life.eu/fr/article/82/

(1) Agendas et minutes of the SCOFCAH meetings in the Brussels http://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/standing_committees/sc_phytopharmaceuticals/index_en.htm

(2)  EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) Guidance on risk assessment of pesticides on bees – http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/3295.htm

(3) Regulation 1107/2009 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32009R1107

Regulation (UE) n ° 283/2013 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32013R028

Regulation (UE) n °284/2013 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32013R0284