Why are we still discussing GM like this?

Even if many of the public at large are ambivalent, public discourse around GM is still highly polarised and the discussion is still seen to be ‘about GM’ – a narrative which seemingly hasn’t changed for 20 years.

On 19 November I had the privilege, on behalf of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, of giving evidence to the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee on ‘GM and the Precautionary Principle’.

The Nuffield Council has published three reports relevant to this topic: GM Crops – The Ethical and Social Issues (1999), The use of GM crops in developing countries (2003) and Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good (2012).

In our earlier reports we concluded that genetic modification of plants does not differ to such an extent from conventional breeding that it is in itself morally objectionable, and that there is a moral duty to explore its use, not least to address challenging problems in developing countries.

The more recent report on emerging biotechnologies placed GM in a wider context, which is the way we believe it should be viewed now.

The specific focus on GM – whatever collection of techniques that now covers – is unhelpful since it singles out one particular set of approaches which might be useful among other technologies and non-technological solutions to pressing problems of food security and adaptation to climate change. It also fails to reflect the increasingly continuous spectrum of what are currently classified as GM and non-GM techniques for regulatory purposes.

All plant breeding alters genomes, exacerbated by the selective pressure applied by humans in any such process, GM or non-GM, and it is the nature and impact of those alterations on which the focus should be, however derived.

This wider context, and the social, cultural and political issues with which it comes, including concepts of ‘naturalness’, implies for us not just the need to apply the precautionary principle as an aspect of risk management at the point of regulation. It implies a ‘precautionary approach’ to commonly-agreed challenges that brings in diverse perspectives and knowledge to explore all means of addressing them, including the potential of GM, well before the yes/no regulatory decision about a particular product has to be made.

This wider ‘public ethics discourse’ has implications for the way that key institutions within the innovation system are governed and operate to include those wider voices effectively and equitably.

This remains unfinished business, and while it is unfinished it is likely that the understandably value-laden and political disputes about purposes, priorities and alternatives will continue to be loaded onto the regulatory system in a way that makes decision-making more difficult than it might be.

That is why we are still discussing GM much as we did 20 years ago, and until we engage with these issues, there is a risk that the discourse will continue unchanged for many years to come.

Council member Sir Roland Jackson is Executive Chair of Sciencewise. He is on twitter as @Roland_Jackson

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