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Agri-food biotechnologies: public concerns, risk and regulation George Gaskell 11 March 2003 University of Bath.

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Presentation on theme: "Agri-food biotechnologies: public concerns, risk and regulation George Gaskell 11 March 2003 University of Bath."— Presentation transcript:

1 Agri-food biotechnologies: public concerns, risk and regulation George Gaskell 11 March 2003 University of Bath

2 Contrasting technological fortunes Mobile phones: selling like hot cakes! health risks widely discussed, emerging environmental risks. Biotechnology: de facto moratorium on GM crops notwithstanding 2001/18/EC Fog of claims and counter claims on health and environmental risks.

3 Setting the scene The development of rDNA technology The Flavrsavr tomato Survey shows Europeans are ambivalent Monsanto and GM soya The watershed years: Crisis of confidence in GM foods, corporate science and governance. Europe likely to be taken to the World Trade Organisation

4 A sea of controversies Declining confidence in experts – BSE, dioxin, foot and mouth disease and contaminated blood. Globalisation, the WTO and the risk society Complexities of policy making in Europe The commercialisation of science Agriculture, the CAP and the future of rural communities And Monsantos dismal risk management strategy, whipping up the stormy seas.

5 Contrasting representations of risk For experts GM crops and foods are an innovation – progress writ large Public anxieties due to misperception of risks Technophobia based on risk aversion BSE and other food scares Ergo risk communication by trusted experts and now public consultation.

6 Risk in the social sciences Origins in gambling, economics, finance and engineering 1960s Behavioural decision theory - Edwards 1970s Risk perception, biases and heuristics – Slovic, Tversky and Kahneman 1980s The cultural matrix of risk - Douglas

7 Risk and policy Evidence based policy making: the rational society Codex Alimentarius: the establishment of international standards for risk assessment Predicated on a generalised communication medium a currency of risk But is this possible? Yes, say those advocating sound science

8 Sound science, uncertainty and risk Natural science the paradigm; emerging consensus on the concept (representation) of risk Relevant and irrelevant dangers Relevant = familiar to science, objectified as risks Relevant risks further objectified in terms of the familiar metric of probability Irrelevant = subjective and immeasurable New dangers – substantial equivalence anchoring Uncertainty: only legitimate expertise is scientific Sound science as judge (rules of evidence) and jury (verdict) Sed quis judicabet ipsos judices? Scientific peers!

9 In practice, values cannot be ignored. Safety in a rational society Value per fatality VPFs, but Adventure centres £5m Gas main explosions £100m Railways £100m Roads £0.1m Values enter the equation: politics, reputations, interest groups, public responses

10 What do we know about public conceptions of risks? Prospect theory Over-estimate likelihood of low probability events. –Sensitivity to dangers- losses The availability heuristic –Estimates of probability based on ease of recall The affective heuristic - Slovic Media amplification News value of unusual and spectacular accidents

11 Prospect Theory : Weighing up gains and losses a Utility Value

12 Mapping Risk Perception Starr: risk acceptability as revealed preference Voluntary and involuntary risks Qualitative dimensions of risk


14 Risk and Values Probabilist and contextualist conceptions of risk Cultural Theory Mary Douglas Risks are defined within the cultural matrix Competing worldviews (cultures) in modern societies

15 Ways of sense making Paradigmatic: sound science, the way scientific journals operate – abstract and universal, warranted by empirical evidence. Narrative: everyday thinking – concrete and particular; explanations in terms of actions and intentions. A good (believable) is the criterion of truth Scientists and politicians are as adept as the public in the telling of good stories.

16 Risks and benefits in everyday conversation: a qualitative analysis Risks qua the scientific definition seldom articulated in focus group discussions Opposition articulated in terms of –Uncertainty about longer term consequences –Lack of trust in key actors –Absence of perceived benefits and plausible alternatives to GM applications: a strong current of opinion

17 How the public thinks about new hazards such as agri-biotechs Mainly in the narrative mode A focus on the challenging object rather than probabilities (Thompson) Those that can be imagined or visualised are more relevant. The mere act of imagining a negative outcome makes it possible Credible stories and good images are warrants of truth.

18 Agri-food biotechnology: problems and critiques Variety of problems identified by different groups Blue: traditional and conservative rejection – a Faustian pact with the devil, a non-contingent veto. Green: at the limits of science, unknown and unknowable consequences – Frankenstein revisited, a no vote until proved safe. Democratic: denial of choice an affront to rights Pragmatic: cant imagine the benefits, why is it needed?

19 The European public segmented by risk and benefit perceptions (Source: Eurobarometer 52.1)

20 The social construction of dangers In different cultures/milieus different representations of dangers Representations an emergent property of communication. As are definitions of benefits and costs The toblerone model of representations (Bauer and Gaskell, 1999) Fancy a real dog, hot dog?

21 Back to evidence based policy making Risk definition, assessment and management viewed as separate activities – division of labour between scientists and political managers Establishes a representation of risk and related policy by fiat – imposed top-down. Does this single currency of risk carry legitimacy?

22 Well, yes and no Legitimate in context of a familiar and proximal hazards, broad agreement on the currency – health and medicines But as a common currency across different categories of hazard, I doubt it because it runs counter to narrative thinking. Equally, in politics some risks are more symbolic than others For distal hazards people tend not to think in terms of probabilities. More likely to treat benefits as lexicographic or to act on trust. With new challenges the currency fails because there is no consensus on the danger.

23 Internationalising risk regulation For new challenges, representations of the scope of the problem, benefits and costs are likely to be disputed. Benefits and risks are not seen as independent Since we cannot live in a risk free world, opens the opportunity for groups to have different problem definitions, risk sensitivity and risk acceptability. In this sense one can see why it is hard enough to establish evidenced based policy making in one country, let alone international standards. Alan Randall (Codex) on international regulations: Sound science a good basis but not sufficient in and of itself. Other legitimate factors need to be taken into account

24 Hirschman: responses to institutional challenges Exit (leave), loyalty (accept) and voice (complain) Exit is not an option for new for many new technologies. Voice is limited by structural constraints. The democratic deficit is, in part, a product of scientism – sound science is the only truth But choices about science and technology, about what future we want are social choices Hard science should be on tap in such choices but not on top.

25 Back to mobile phones Why are the major telecoms companies in the UK, France and Germany in such financial trouble? Massive investments in 3G systems with as yet no payback. Like GM foods the 3G technology is not seen as beneficial.

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