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Agriculture see Forum website.
Note, participants are assumed to be speaking on their own behalf, unless they state otherwise.]
Sent: 07 February 2005 10:10
Subject: 83: Re: Who pays for the public involvement in decision-making
[Thanks to Craig Harris for the message below. I would like to remind you that we are now entering the last week of this 4-week long e-mail conference and that the final day for receiving messages for posting in the conference is Sunday 13 February. In this last week, we especially encourage those of you who have not already done so to contribute to this exchange on "Public participation in decision-making regarding GMOs in developing countries: How to effectively involve rural people", by addressing any of 15 questions listed in Section 6 of the background document and/or commenting on some of the many excellent messages that have already been posted in the conference...Moderator].
This is Craig Harris, a sociologist at Michigan State University, United States. I study the processes of social discourse that lead to beliefs and attitudes about biotechnology, and to public and private decisions about policies and programs concerning biotechnology.
It seems to me that the line of thinking in this thread assumes that it is possible through science to approach one correct answer, i.e., one fairly consensual estimate of the impacts, fairly unitary agreement on the costs and benefits of those impacts, and concurrence on the likelihood of those impacts. With this assumption, as David Steane (Message 81) says, published data and results can be put into simple terminology and distributed to the public.
I think this line of thinking is flawed for three reasons.
First, if we accept the "one correct answer" assumption, this is still only the beginning of public involvement in decision making. Each actor will still use her/his values and interests to calculate whether s/he is for or against the proposed biotechnology. These clashes of values and interests may still be highly contentious and rancorous, so public involvement will still need to be managed.
Second, I do not see much basis for the "one correct answer" assumption. It seems to me that, at all levels of scientific quality, the literature is still replete with widely divergent estimates of the impacts of various biotechnologies, their costs and benefits, and their probabilities. I think this is at least partly because these significant aspects of biotechnology are highly contextual, and thus difficult to estimate with laboratory studies or limited field trials.
Third, while it might be possible to reach some consensus on these scientific aspects, it is not clear that the scientists would have asked all the questions that public social decision makers want answered. That would suggest that, if one wants to try to achieve a scientific consensus, that science should itself be produced through a discursive or dialogic process involving public social decision makers. Some of the questions posed by social decision makers may be context specific; others may have to do with the comparison of biotechnology with alternative agricultural technologies for accomplishing the stated goals.
Craig K Harris
Department of Sociology
Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station
Ntional Food Safety and Toxicology Center
Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards
Michigan State University
Craig.Harris (at) ssc.msu.edu
Sent: 07 February 2005 17:17
Subject: 84: Public involvement should not be aimed for a Yes/No answer
Thank you FAO for hosting this excellent conference with such diverse global expertise, it is very interesting and relevent.
Jorge E. Mayer (Message 66) has confidence in the regulatory process, promotes alliances between governments and companies and has confidence that information about agrichemicals and land management provided by the "experts" of the companies who sell the products is reliable. As a farmer I have serious concerns regarding the level of alliances between governments and companies as it appears to influence outcomes, have little trust in most countries regulatory process because it is reliant on such a narrow definition of health and environment and can certainly prove the promotional hype of GM does not accurately reflect reality.
Generally, governments are limited to inadequate assessment of health and environment when considering GM crops (hence Federal approval in Australia). However, Australian state governments are charged with authority over land use and can assess economic and market concerns including industry preparedness (hence States imposing moratoriums). I would recommend this inclusion in any legislation in order to address the issues more completely but some form of accountability needs to be integrated to ensure alliances between companies and governments does not influence outcomes.
Seeking a Yes/No answer on GM crops is too simplistic yet an unmanaged "Yes" is a desired outcome of the biotech industry. As mentioned by Atefeh Fooladi Moghaddam (Message 63) "If we suppose they were well informed about the pros and cons of this new technology, their decision would be yes or no. They would accept the new technology or deny it." and as pointed out by Prashant Joshi (Message 61) "Some developing countries accepted and some of them rejected the idea of GMOs." If preparing legislation, any public involvement should not be aimed for a Yes/No answer as the answer is obviously dependent on who you ask. Those with a vested interest in GM crops are understandably going to be on the supportive side of GM crops and those that will be impacted negatively by GM crops (consumers or farmers wishing to avoid GM foods or crops) will be opposed to its introduction. The majority of the public will be between these polarised views dependent on who they have relied on for information. Therefore public participation based on a Yes/No answer will be totally irrelevent and is nothing more than a spot poll to see who has distributed information the best.
We can learn from the mistakes that have occurred to date in the decision making process and public participation attempts. As mentioned by Joanna Goven (Message 59) many postings indicate a desire to persuade the rural population to accept GMOs which is a "mere legitimation exercise" and while this is the intention of those pushing GM crops, I agree it is irresponsible. Edo Lin (Message 56) explained the public participation in debates in 3 European counties, where the UK debate involved 20,000 people, yet "...none of the debates were efforts towards public decision making." This expensive exercise could have been aimed at a more practical approach of managing the problems identified. Health concerns were identified yet there appeared to be no resolution to find what health testing would be necessary to allay consumer fears. Contamination was identified as an issue yet there appeared to be no attempt at resolving the issues regarding contamination problems and associated fair coexistence protocols. To introduce a GM crop and to expect non-GM farmers to accept liability for economic loss associated with contamination with a product they do not want, needs to be reversed and the risks managed. If EU succumb to the US pressure under WTO, will they have resolved these critical issues in time? While Germany is prepared with a strict liability regime, how will other member states manage?
As mentioned by J. Lynne Brown (Message 52): "Risks and benefits are almost always biased by ones location in the hierarchy or food chain so a risk to one person is a benefit to another." While the GM industry will gain significantly from contamination because it will remove the competition from non-GM commodities, farmers and consumers will lose and accordingly government must intervene to address this imbalance.
Legislation must be based on accurate identification of risk and preparation of required risk management. To avoid being misled by the hefty promotional campaign, it is also essential to investigate how accurate the benefit claims are and if these benefits can be achieved by alternative means. Information relevent to adequate assessment must not be withheld for any reason. Before even calling for public involvement, this information should be investigated by contacting the relevent industries that can help with this information. In Australia, I have found the information required to investigate these issues thoroughly is not available and in many cases information required is claimed to be "commercial in confidence". Further intense investigation has revealed that the information withheld reveals the inadequacies of the GM crops which explains the reluctance to share this information. Information regarding performance and costs is the practical information farmers need and must be revealed.
Public involvement should then be asked to guage if the prepared risk management is considered adequate to address the risks involved and the information gained will assist the farming community to make unbiased decisions regarding growing the crop. This method of information collection and distribution will be a far cheaper option as it will involve far less confusion and avoid irreversible confusion and controversy.
Network of Concerned Farmers
Phone 08 98711562
julie at non-gm-farmers.com