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

A New Era for GM Crop Regulation in Europe?

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Before the holiday season, we published a short piece in The Conversation on the new situation concerning the cultivation of GM crops in Europe. The article was titled “Why Europe will let member states opt out of GM crops” and described how the new European Directive 2015/412 now gives Member States more freedom to decide for themselves whether they wish to allow the cultivation of GM crops within their territories.

While we have been following (and critiquing) the development of this new Directive over the past 5 years that it has been under negotiation, we were inspired to write this piece after reading an article by Mark Lynas published in the New York Times, which we felt seriously misrepresented the new Directive and what it opens for. We therefore wanted to write an article that accurately described the new rules in a way that was accessible for a general audience, and particularly those in the US that may not be so familiar with the European regulatory system.

This turned out to be quite a challenging task. Trying to accurately convey the nuances of a rather complicated piece of legislation, developed within the even more complicated history of European debates and disagreements over GMOs, in a style that presented some of the new legislation’s strengths and weaknesses and made sense for a lay audience, was certainly not easy. It was especially not easy since our section editor at The Conversation had given us a limit of just 1000 words to work with.

Through offering comments on our text, the editor also regularly reminded us of just how little a US audience may be expected to know and understand of the European regulatory system, especially given how different the two systems are in their foundational beliefs and approaches. For example, the US system is based on a product  based approach and the idea that GM crops and conventional crops are substantially equivalent, with no federal requirements for traceability or labelling. The European system, however, regulates on a process-based approach, meaning any crop created using modern biotechnology has to pass through a specific regulatory system, and there is a committment to freedom of consumer choice that requires GMOs to be detectable and traceable throughout the agri-food system, e.g. through measures such as labelling schemes. (If you are interested in more detailed analyses of US-EU differences over GMO regulation you can read some different views here, here or here).

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We still have some serious questions and concerns regarding the new Directive and how it may play out in practice. Including, for example: the power granted to biotechnology corporations to deny a Member State request to have their territory excluded from GM crop cultivation, the inability to use scientific grounds and alternative scientific assessments as a reason for opting out, and the questionable ability of non-scientific reasoning to hold firm if challenged in international trade courts. However, we were all quite surprised at how when writing this piece for a US audience, the Directive emerged as a much more postive development than we had expected.

The Directive arguably breaks a long held dictatorship of science and opens for a much more democratic approach to decision-making on GM crop cultivation – an approach in which questions of acceptability are not simply reduced to a narrow concern with “Is it safe?” but can also expand to include questions such as: “Is it sustainable?”, “Is it socially desirable?”, “Is it ethical?” and “Is it in line with broader policy objectives?”. This allows Member States to consider and balance assessments of health and safety concerns with assessments of other types of concerns, policy objectives and socio-economic impacts. Furthermore, the new directive allows Member States to make these assessments on a case by case basis, allowing them to accept some GM crops (e.g. those modified to resist a certain disease) while rejecting others (e.g. those tolerating ever higher levels of applied herbicides).

While it will be important to follow how engagement with the new Directive takes place over the months and years to come, we see this opening up for a more flexible approach to GM regulation in Europe, and particularly its recognition of the legitimacy of reasoning based on both scientific and social grounds, as a largely positive move. We are wondering how others out there feel about it though, so if you are not familiar with the new Directive, read our short piece and let us know your thoughts!

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!

Divide y vencerás: Reflexiones sobre la nueva Directiva Europea sobre OMGs

Photo author: lewishamdreamer - CC license

Photo author: lewishamdreamer – CC license

La semana pasada saltó a los medios de comunicación la noticia de que Escocia está a punto de prohibir los Organismos Modificados Genéticamente (OMGs). Esta prohibición, si acaba materializándose, sería la primera que se realiza después de la entrada en vigor de la nueva legislación europea en materia de transgénicos, el pasado mes de Abril de 2015. Hemos considerado oportuno hacer un repaso de los principales cambios legislativos y algunas reflexiones y apuntes generales sobre las implicaciones que podría tener la nueva directiva.

Los antecedentes del cambio legislativo nos remontan a una situación institucional Europea en la que se reflejaba una dilatada controversia social que estas biotecnologías generan. Durante muchos años, los Estados Miembro han mantenido opiniones antagónicas sobre el cultivo de los OMGs en sus territorios nacionales. Por ejemplo Austria, Hungría, Grecia, Luxemburgo, Alemania y Francia han utilizado todos una cláusula existente en la legislación anterior para implementar prohibiciones nacionales sobre el cultivo y la comercialización de los OMGs (aunque Alemania autorizó la comercialización de una patata transgénica para usos industriales que fue retirada poco después). A su vez, países como el Estado español (el país con más hectáreas cultivadas de OMGs en Europa, con diferencia), República Checa, Eslovaquia, Portugal, Rumanía y Polonia han apostado por el uso de estas biotecnologías y en sus territorios se cultivan y se comercializan estos cultivos. Ante el intenso debate y la polarización de los Estados Miembros, el cambio de legislación vino motivado para dar salida, de alguna forma, al atolladero legal en que se encontraba el conjunto de países de la UE, en el que las aprobaciones de transgénicos a nivel Europeo eran continuamente cuestionadas y no contaban con el apoyo de algunos de los Estados Miembros.

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A continuación destacamos los principales aspectos de la nueva directiva y los cambios que ha conllevado:

  • Hay que puntualizar que la nueva legislación sólo afecta al cultivo de OMGs, no a su importación o a sus movimientos dentro de la Unión Europea, aunque ya hay un borrador de una directiva europea sobre importaciones paralela a la de cultivo en circulación. Esto significa que la nueva Directiva tampoco afecta a los campos experimentales o a utilización confinada de OMGs.
  • La nueva directiva permite a los estados prohibir o, mejor dicho, restringir lo que denominan un ‘evento’ (es decir, la modificación genética concreta para la que se busca la aprobación) amparándose, entre otros aspectos, en criterios socio-económicos para proteger los productos no-OMG (e.g porque chocan con sus objetivos en materia de política agraria o ambiental, etc…). Es importante destacar que, bajo la anterior legislación, no era posible utilizar este tipo de criterios para justificar una prohibición.
  • La directiva establece un procedimiento con dos pasos: en un primer momento, un estado puede solicitar ante la Comisión ser excluido del ámbito de aplicación de la autorización. En caso de que el solicitante de los permisos para la venta de la modificación o ‘evento’ (por ejemplo, una empresa de biotecnología) no lo acepte, el estado en cuestión deberá justificar su solicitud de ser excluido basándose en los motivos descritos anteriormente siempre y cuando sea de forma “razonada, proporcional y no discriminatoria”.
  • El Parlamento Europeo veía la nueva directiva como una oportunidad para establecer medidas de coexistencia obligatorias (entre cultivos transgénicos y no transgénicos) para los países adoptantes de OMGs. Sin embargo, esta propuesta fue finalmente desestimada y la directiva sólo menciona vagamente que se deberán establecer ciertas medidas de coexistencia – no se establecen cuáles – en las áreas fronterizas entre un país dónde esté autorizado el cultivo y el país o entre países vecinos en donde su cultivo esté restringido o prohibido.
  • Este procedimiento sólo puede iniciarse una vez el ‘evento’ ha sido evaluado positivamente siguiendo la evaluación de riesgo habitual en la UE que es estrictamente restringida a aspectos cuantificables del ‘riesgo’ y que es la única evaluación considerada como propiamente “científica”. Como esta aproximación excluye e ignora todo lo relativo a las dimensiones sociales, políticas y éticas de los cultivos transgénicos, éstas son consideradas como “otros aspectos a tener en cuenta”, pero quedan, en realidad, al margen de la evaluación formal a nivel europeo.

La principal implicación de este cambio legislativo es que mientras que hay países que se acogerán a la prohibición, todo apunta a que seguramente se acelerarán los procesos de adopción en otros, como el Estado español, polarizando aún más el mapa de cultivo de OMGs en Europa, particularizando y dividiendo la toma de decisiones sobre la implantación de los cultivos OMGs en Europa y debilitando así cualquier iniciativa colectiva de afrontar políticamente, más allá del ámbito de los estados-nación, una de las grandes controversias tecnocientíficas de este siglo.

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Además, el marco legal que establece la directiva es poco robusto, y quedan muchas incógnitas en relación a las implicaciones prácticas de su implementación: ¿Podrán las empresas biotecnológicas demandar a un Estado Miembro (o a una región concreta, como en el caso de Escocia) que quiera prohibir el cultivo de un evento MG, por ejemplo, con el beneplácito de la OMC? ¿Podrá una región hacer frente a una demanda judicial por parte de una empresa biotecnológica si persiste en su voluntad de prohibición? ¿Qué papel podrían jugar los tribunales de arbitraje que se están negociando en el Tratado Transatlántico para el Comercio y la Inversión, conocido en inglés como TTIP, cuando no exista acuerdo entre el país o la región que quiera restringir o prohibir un OMGs y la empresa que solicita su autorización?

Finalmente, tampoco queda claro qué justificaciones -y qué tipos de conocimiento y evidencias- serán consideradas como relevantes, válidas y suficientes para respaldar una prohibición cuando existen tan pocos datos empíricos sobre las consecuencias sociales y económicas de los OMGs, especialmente en los países del llamado Norte Global. En este sentido, una vez más, nos parece conveniente resaltar la importancia de lo que el proyecto Agri/Cultures trata de hacer, es decir, de generar y visualizar conocimiento empírico útil y relevante socialmente, que permita la evaluación de aspectos socio-económicos y éticos de los OMGs con el objetivo de avanzar hacia una toma de decisiones más robusta, más inclusiva, más responsable, más holística, más democrática y sobretodo que incorpore las preocupaciones socio-ecológicas manifestadas por amplios sectores de las sociedad.