Academic journal article Health Law Review

Assessing the Science of Genetically Modified Crops: The New Frontier of Public Health Policy

Academic journal article Health Law Review

Assessing the Science of Genetically Modified Crops: The New Frontier of Public Health Policy

Article excerpt

"Good science should inform public health policy." (1) Such a claim seems self-evident; however, when matters of public health policy are addressed by the Courts, the role of science becomes murky. At the best of times, when the science is unambiguous, public health decisions necessitate that a complex matrix of legal, political, economic and ethical considerations be weighed against one another. (2) More often public health decisions are based on uncertainties, as "the information that most scientific research provides to health and environmental regulation is incomplete and inconclusive, both in identifying and in quantifying the risks that these hazards pose." (3) It is the task of public health agencies to formulate responses to these risks, identifying and evaluating the relevant science prior to making a decision. (4) Should a matter of public health come before the courts the task of deciphering the science no longer belongs to the public health agencies, but is vested in the judiciary.

If the science is ambiguous--as is often the case (5)--does the judiciary possess the requisite information or expertise to adjudicate such matters? Are the courts the appropriate venue for evaluating public health decisions? These questions are further complicated by novel and controversial sciences, which are not only contentious in their own right but often represent a battle between publicly-funded health agencies and multinational corporations. The following aims to elucidate the challenges of adjudicating matters of public health where the science is ambiguous by distilling the lessons learned from what arguably represents the most polemical public health issue the courts have faced: tobacco. This discussion will be facilitated by using the case study of what stands to be one of the new frontiers of public health policy in the courts, genetically modified (GM) crops.

GM crops present a unique problem for public health decision-making. A new area of research, the debate concerning GM crops is fiercely polemical. On one side of the debate are those warning of the risks, arguing that such risks should be avoided until further research can be undertaken. On the other side are those contending that the benefits associated with GM crops far outweigh the risks. (6) A vast amount of information has been disseminated to the general public and scientific community espousing the various viewpoints. (7) All rely to some degree on scientific proofs. Given the ambiguities surrounding the science of GM crops and their undetermined impact on human health, should a public health concern be brought before the courts, the task of weighing the evidence would be formidable. (8) Several lessons from three decades of tobacco litigation, however, can help ensure that the quality of science relied upon is not swayed by partisan interests.

Tobacco litigation, in many respects, serves as the archetype for achieving public health goals. Three decades of tobacco litigation have assisted in the articulation and development of public health policies; they have also resulted in some substantial success stories, with victims being compensated by the industry. On the downside, the tobacco industry was provided with sufficient time to develop a counter-strategy; namely, the "junk science" movement. The term "junk science" was utilized by the tobacco industry during litigation to deconstruct and dismantle the scientific evidence presented by plaintiffs' expert testimony regarding the science on smoking and health. (9) It was an attempt to ridicule any research that threatened their interests, paying no regard to the quality of the research. (10) In addition, it allowed science to be "bent" to achieve pre-determined goals. (11) Industry documents reveal that the tobacco industry intentionally undermined scientific studies, falsified data, manufactured uncertainty and propagated its own junk science as a way to avoid liability. (12) As one tobacco industry executive acknowledged, "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.