The Biopolitics of Genetically Modified Organisms in Canada

By Andree, Peter | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Biopolitics of Genetically Modified Organisms in Canada


Andree, Peter, Journal of Canadian Studies


In recent years we have witnessed the rise of considerable resistance to genetically modified (GM) food and crops around the world. This has led to a moratorium on the planting of new GM crops in Europe, and regimes for the mandatory labelling of GM foods in more than 30 countries, including Japan and Australia. By contrast, the Canadian regulatory system has approved 51 "plants with novel traits" and "novel foods" since 1995, almost all of which are GM, and any demands to require labelling of these products have been resisted by the federal government. Working with theoretical concepts developed by Michel Foucault, this essay examines this situation in Canada. The author traces the way in which facts and values have together given shape to a biopolitical struggle between those scientists who would frame genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a manageable risk and those who have adopted a more precautionary framing. Three specific terms used in Canadian "science-based" regulation - "novelty," "familiarity" and "substantial equivalence" - can be seen to represent ambiguous compromises in these ongoing struggles at the international level. In Canada these concepts have been mobilized to narrow the horizon of what can be expected to be risky about genetic engineering, allowing swift approval of many GM crops. High-level scientific critiques of this system, however, buoyed by public concern, point towards the need for a more open-ended regulatory process in Canada, one that would acknowledge that decision making in this field is inevitably both technical and political.

Au cours des dernieres annees, nous avons observe une resistance de plus en plus importante aux aliments et cultures genetiquement modifies un peu partout dans le monde. Ceci a entraine l'imposition d'un moratoire sur la plantation de nouvelles cultures comprenant des organismes genetiquement modifies en Europe et de regimes sur l'etiquetage obligatoire d'aliments genetiquement modifies dans plus de 30 pays, y compris le Japon et l'Australie. En comparaison, le systeme de reglementation canadien a approuve 51 " vegetaux a caracteres nouveaux " et " nouveaux aliments " depuis 1995 - la plupart etant genetiquement modifies - et toutes les demandes concernant l'etiquetage de ces produits ont ete resistees par le gouvernement federal. S'inspirant de concepts theoriques formules par Michel Foucault, le present article examine la situation au Canada. L'auteur retrace comment les donnees et les valeurs ont entraine des conflits biopolitiques entre les scientifiques qui jugent que les organismes genetiquement modifies posent des risques controlables et ceux qui insistent sur une plus grande prudence. Trois expressions precises utilisees au Canada dans la reglementation " a vocation scientifique " - " nouveaute ", " familiarite " et " equivalence essentielle " - peuvent etre percues comme representant des compromis ambigus dans le cadre de ces conflits continus a l'echelle internationale. Au Canada, ces concepts ont ete mobilises pour mieux prevoir ce qui pourrait entrainer des risques dans le domaine du genie genetique, favorisant une approbation rapide de plusieurs cultures genetiquement modifiees. Toutefois, des critiques de ce systeme a l'echelon scientifique superieur - alimentees par les inquietudes du public - semblent indiquer qu'on a besoin d'un processus de reglementation moins limite au Canada, ce processus tenant compte du fait que la prise de decisions en la matiere comprend inevitablement des composantes techniques et politiques.

Introduction

For millennia, man [sic] remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics place his existence as a living being in question. (Foucault, The History of Sexuality 143)

The advent in the mid-1990s of commercial production of the first generation of genetically engineered crops, as well as the Canadian government's approval of food ingredients derived from these crops, has prompted the highest level of public debate since these techniques were first developed in the early 1970s about how and whether the products of genetic engineering should be applied. …

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