• Question: How much data would you say would be enough data to support arguments for or against the use of particular GM technology?

    Asked by ellie_russell to Andy, Cathie, Jules, Les, Ricarda on 25 Jun 2012.
    • Photo: Andy Stirling

      Andy Stirling answered on 25 Jun 2012:

      This is an important question, because it directly raises the issue of ‘science based decision making’. Whilst science is crucial, to what extent can real world policy decisions ever be based entirely on science (or data)?

      To asks how much data is enough, then, suggests an assumption that a decision for or against a particular GM technology should (or could) be determined by “data” alone. As I tried to argue in several of my other comments, this is a bit misleading. Data is important, but it’s only part of the story.

      This is for many reasons. For a starter, the issues are not just about “GM or not?”, but about which of a variety of different innovations we prefer. Different options are favoured (and viewed) differently under different perspectives. And the issues are not just about “how safe?”. A range of different issues and values come into the picture beyond the ‘data’ on safety or environmental impact. There are issues, for instance, of economics, and politics and the kinds of farming and food that we value..

      What all this means is, that questions (and decisions) about GM cannot be settled by “data” alone. Like many other issues that are claimed to be a matter purely for expert analysis, then, the pros and cons are at least as much a matter for democratic politics as for expect analysis of data.

      This does not mean that scientific data is not crucial. Indeed, information of various kinds is absolutely essential to any reasonable decision. But, whilst it is necessary, data alone is not sufficient. It does not speak with one voice. The uncertainties and ambiguities leave room for different equally-reasonable interpretations. And the answers we get from the data, will always depend partly on the questions that we ask. And which technological options look favourable or unfavourable also depend on what values we use to frame and prioritise the different kinds of evidence.

      So – in short – no data is enough in itself. Information is always useful, but in the end, the crucial issues are political. Which directions do we want our technologies to go in? How do we want to relate to the natural world? What kinds of food do we want to eat?

    • Photo: Ricarda Steinbrecher

      Ricarda Steinbrecher answered on 26 Jun 2012:

      The precautionary principle (PP) clearly states that if there is scientific uncertainty regarding the potential of a technology for irreversible or serious harm, the burden of proof lies with the proposer of a technology having to proof its safety. Unless this can be done, any tests indicating any kind of problem should result in non-approval, ie rejection.

      But there are two crucial points to this:
      1) what do we consider as “data”, which in some regulatory systems is referred to as ‘information’;
      2) and which “arguments” or aspects are being considered here?

      Re (1): Not all data/information can or should be purely ‘scientific’, as there are for example different knowledge systems (eg traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities). But all information that is to be considered needs to be made clearly and fully visible and accessible to all and not be permitted to be exempted from public access via claiming ‘confidential business information’ (CBI). If the data/information is based on experiments, the methodology used needs to be fully transparent as to allow for replication and testing of the experiment and for verification of the data/results. Replicability is a key scientific ingredient. For this it is also crucial that any person/scientist wanting to verify the data by carrying out experiments should be granted full access to such samples/specimen, (such as GM seed/crops for feed).

      Re (2): The big question though is how inclusive and open would such a debate have to be or want to be? Will the full range of arguments, aspects and issues linked to GM crops/foods (and GM organisms in general) be allowed into the debate and be fully taken into consideration? For example: control over seeds, increased herbicide use, soil food web, ecosystem function and resilience, agro-biodiversity, livelihoods, socio-economics, ethics, alternatives, … a hugely wide ranging spectrum. People are often very selective about data they use … and yet we would need to look at data & information from such a broad range of issues, wide range of fields, different areas of discussion if we really wanted to go into it properly.

      The question asked would warrant a long and thorough debate – and it would require or teach systems thinking – recognising the interconnected and interdependent nature of all the issues. How much is enough? Can’t really say. And isn’t it equally important to ask who would – at the end – be making the decision(s)? And what would be the process?

    • Photo: Julian Little

      Julian Little answered on 28 Jun 2012:

      Hi Ellie, another excellent question from the Russell Household! I guess the simple answer is that it depends on your point of view. For those who are dead set against the use of this technology, there will never be enough; for those who are very pro the technology, I’m sure the answer is that we already have enough.

      So what do we have today…? Commercial growing for 16 or 17 years; ten years of experience prior to commercialisation – so say more than 25 years of intensive study – perhaps the most studied thing ever in our food supply chain. Nearly 17 million farmers looking at the crop every year. Something approaching 3 trillion meals containing GM ingredients eaten without one substantiated food issue. Or the fact that the European Commission (which is not known for a pro-GM stance) published a report detailing the 120 projects it had funded over the last 25 years with 500 research groups looking at the safety of GM (http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf ). It’s conclusion? “That biotechnology, and particularly GMOs, are not per se more risky than, eg conventional plant breeding technologies”. Not to mention farmer benefits and environmental benefits, for example http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/page/33/global-impact-2012

      But, to repeat myself, it may be enough for some (currently 29 countries around the world) but, for those who are dead set against the use of this technology, there will never be enough.

    • Photo: Les Firbank

      Les Firbank answered on 29 Jun 2012:

      This is the question ACRE has to answer. ACRE is short for ‘Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment’, and gives advice to government every time a company or laboratory requests permission to release a GM plant or animal into the environment. When the request comes, we receive a large file with evidence that the GM organism will be safe for the environment, and that measures are in place to monitor it after it has been released. Another committee handles whether the food from the plant is safe to eat. This file is reviewed by an expert panel in each of the EU countries, and by a cross-European panel. We often ask for more evidence, or for the applicants to look at issues raised by other studies, before we recommend to Government whether or not the application should be approved. The final decision is taken by the EU.

      Have a look at