Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Sound Science or Ideology?

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Sound Science or Ideology?

Article excerpt

In disputes over genetically modified crops, the demand for "sound science" pre-empts debate on uncertainties about potential harm.

The controversy over genetically modified organisms in Europe and the United States reveals fundamental differences that have led to trans-Atlantic trade conflicts. There have been national differences and shifts in the criteria for scientific evidence that regulators require.

Genetically modified organisms have become a test case for the conflicting slogans of sound science versus the precautionary principle. The U.S. framework for genetically modified organisms has been termed risk-based regulation or science-based regulation, an approach that claims to base decisions on scientific evidence. The concept of sound science has been used to assign a weak burden of evidence for safety and a strong burden of evidence for risk, thus facilitating commercial approval.

Although the term sound science is heard in Europe too, it co-exists with the precautionary principle, which generally acknowledges uncertainty or ignorance warranting more scientific information prior to decisions. Officially linked to regulation of genetically modified organisms, the precautionary principle has been widely invoked as grounds for delaying approval of many genetically modified crops. Using this more cautious approach, European regulators have cited new evidence of risk or uncertainty, or have requested more evidence of safety.

Some proponents of these crops maintain that precautionary regulation is misguided on several grounds: that it imposes an unrealistic burden of proof for safety, it discriminates against genetically modified crops, and it ignores the lower risk of such products compared with the agrochemical risks of cultivating their nonmodified counterparts. In their view, precautionary controls are a proxy for issues that have nothing to do with risk, for example trade policy, agricultural production methods, or irrational fears. In short, regulatory delays are attributed to political rather than scientific reasons.

That diagnosis begs some questions. How can sound science be distinguished from unsound science? When research provides new evidence of risk or uncertainty, does the earlier science become unsound, retrospectively? Alternatively, is the new evidence to be discredited as unsound? Can there be an apolitical way of basing decisions upon science?

Starting from such questions, this essay analyzes how risk regulation frames the cause-and-effect uncertainties about potential harm from genetically modified crops. Insect-protected corn serves as a case study to illustrate the environmental issues surrounding genetically modified crops in the United States and Europe.

Insect-protected Crops

Since the 1980s, genetically modified organisms have been promoted as environmentally friendly products, while critics have disputed such claims. [2] Proponents assert that genetically modified crops offer a natural extension of traditional breeding, the ability to control precise genetic changes, and the promise of safe remedies for the problems caused by intensive agriculture. For example, built-in genetic information helps genetically modified crops protect themselves from pests and disease, thus reducing farmers' dependence upon agrochemicals. [3]

Critics counter, however, that these crops impose unknown ecological risks, reduce the biodiversity of plant cultivars, drive research and development according to commercial criteria, and promote the further industrialization of agriculture. Such products, critics warn, will aggravate the hazards of intensive agriculture, for example by extending dependence upon agrochemical or genetic solutions, accelerating resistance to plant pests, and thus establishing a genetic treadmill, a scenario similar to the one encountered by farmers dealing with insects that have acquired resistance to chemical pesticides. …

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