From risk assessment to in-context trajectory evaluation. GMOs and their social implications

Septiembre 2010
Instituto de Políticas y Bienes Públicos (IPP) CSIC, Working Paper. 2010-11

Vincenzo Pavone, Joanna Goven & Riccardo Guarino

Purpose: Over the past twenty years, GMOs have raised enormous expectations, passionate political controversies, and an on-going debate on how should these technologies be assessed. Current risk-assessment procedures generally assess GMOs in terms of their potential risk of negatively affecting human health and the environment. Yet, is this risk-benefit approach appropriate to a deliver a robust assessment of GMOs? In this paper, we question the validity of current risk-assessment from both a social and an ecological perspective, and we elaborate an alternative approach, namely in-context trajectory evaluation

Methods: This paper combines frame analysis, context analysis and eco-social analysis to three different case studies.

Results: Applying frame analysis to Syngenta´s recent campaign “Bring plant potential to life”, we first de-construct the techno-social imaginaries driving GMOs innovation, showing how the latter endorses the technological fix of socio-economic problems while reinforcing the neoliberal socio-political paradigm. Applying context analysis to biopharming in New Zealand, we then explore local practices, rules and formal and informal procedures, showing that to assess how safe is a technology it is necessary to address how “safe” is the context. Finally, drawing from the Italian case, we outline through eco-social analysis how the lack of long-term studies, further aggravated by current methodological deficiencies, prevent risk-assessment from considering not only how GMOs affect the environmental context but also, and most importantly, the way people live in, and interact with, this context.

Conclusions: Whilst it emerges that there might be a number of socio-political reasons to support a moratorium on GMOs in Europe even if they come to be considered technically safe, these results suggest that the integration of in-context trajectory evaluation with traditional risk assessment procedures may help promoting social compatibility, political accountability and ecological sustainability.