How Much Should We Worry about Biotech? the Culture War Behind the Biotech Battle: How Irrational Fear Could Really Give Us Something to Worry About

By Gilland, Tony | The American Enterprise, March 2004 | Go to article overview

How Much Should We Worry about Biotech? the Culture War Behind the Biotech Battle: How Irrational Fear Could Really Give Us Something to Worry About


Gilland, Tony, The American Enterprise


When U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and U.S. Special Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced in May 2003 that the U.S. would file a case at the World Trade Organization against the European Union's moratorium on the approval of new genetically modified (G.M.) food products, the U.S. agriculture industry no doubt found itself asking, "What took you so long?" After all, the E.U.'s approach to the assessment of the health and environmental impact of G.M. foods has been based on shaky scientific foundations from the start.

Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic cast the U.S. challenge in terms of a brewing trade war. Commentators noted that the Europeans are trying to protect their over-subsidized farmers from the pressures of international competition, and that opposition to G.M. foods is part of this anti free trade strategy. While there may be important trade aspects to the rift between Europe and the U.S. over genetically modified foods, the issues at stake in this debate are more profound and complex. We appear to be witnessing not just a trade war, but a culture war.

On issues of science and technology these days, Europe is often guided by the idea that innovation should only proceed when there is a guarantee that the outcome will not be harmful. Europe isn't alone in this regard; heightened preoccupation with risk has become a global phenomenon, and is by no means confined to issues such as genetically modified organisms. Alongside every debate over global warming, biodiversity, waste disposal, nuclear power, sustainable development, electromagnetic fields, human genetics, and, more recently, nanotechnology, lie fundamental questions about the dynamism of science and technology, man's relationship with nature, and the role of corporations.

We should view the issue of G.M. crops and food in this context. Operating within a "precautionary principle" that demands proof that life will improve before changes are allowed in the status quo, scientists, politicians, and industrialists favorable to genetic engineering have found themselves poorly equipped to make a positive case for its implementation. Hypothetical worst-case scenarios, often with little theoretical plausibility, are combined with claims of minimal benefits for consumers. Why should we accept even the most minimal of risks? Too often, the response of authority figures to these challenges has been to implement increasingly restrictive regulatory controls, and to commission yet more research in a vain attempt to assuage the unassuageable demand that there be no unforeseen adverse consequences from new technologies.

The bumbling way in which policy makers have handled the issue of G.M. foods, particularly within Europe, has established worrying precedents for the way that modern societies relate to science, technology, and innovation generally. Technical and regulatory responses to public concerns about health and environmental issues have not worked in Europe; emotional and psychological appeals have often carried the day.

Of course sensible regulations should be employed when genuine issues of safety or adverse consequences are at stake. But this is not what the E.U.'s regulatory approach to G.M. foods has been about. Working first of all in anticipation of potential negative public reactions to biotechnology, then in response to pressure from interest groups and media campaigns, and eventually in concert with food retailing interests, the E.U. has introduced tighter and tighter regulations against G.M. technology.

The clear aim of these controls has been to cater to public perceptions, rather than scientific questions of health or environmental safety. Consequently, the regulations inevitably end up embodying exaggerated, if not spurious, concerns in an attempt to reassure the public that everything is being done to protect them. Public worries, rather than being properly addressed, challenged, and put into perspective, are thus validated and institutionalized. …

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