Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / January 19, 2017

Making difficult decisions in agriculture: STOA Workshop

Written by Mihalis Kritikos and Nera Kuljanic, Scientists have new technological answers to the twin challenges of limiting emissions and…

Sergey Nivens / Fotolia

Written by Mihalis Kritikos and Nera Kuljanic,

Crossing
Sergey Nivens / Fotolia

Scientists have new technological answers to the twin challenges of limiting emissions and feeding a growing population which is simultaneously shrinking the space left for cultivation. However, these answers in turn pose their own ethical and risk management questions. Societal actors and a wide range of stakeholders have long sought to broaden the scope of authorisation and regulation of agricultural biotechnologies to take into account the relevant socio-economic impacts. Assessing the socio-economic sustainability, societal benefits and ethical acceptability of agricultural biotechnologies in the frame of the established risk assessment procedures has, for a long time, been debated at both EU and international levels. However, the increasingly rapid developments in the field of genetic engineering and synthetic biology trigger a need to re-examine the traditional risk assessment model and explore the deployment of methodologies that may further reinforce the responsiveness and inclusiveness of the current framework.

On 25 January 2017, STOA is organising a workshop to discuss these issues, continuing STOA’s practice of discussing the socio-ethical dimensions of techno-scientific developments. The workshop will be chaired by Marijana Petir, MEP and STOA Panel member. Former President (2010-2016) of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), Julian Kinderlerer, will give the opening presentation on innovation and bioethics, and will moderate the event.

What to expect from the event?

The workshop will provide space for a debate on this challenging aspect of public policy and will offer the opportunity to analyse the feasibility and necessity for inclusion of socio-economic considerations into the current framework.

The various methodological options for assessment, the role of participatory involvement in risk governance and the practical steps and indicators that could be introduced in risk assessment and decision-making related to synthetic biology and genetic modification in agriculture will be discussed by Helge Torgersen, of the Institute of Technology Assessment, Austrian Academy of Sciences, and Anne Ingeborg Myhr, of the Genøk-Centre for Biosafety, Tromsø, Norway. For example, in Norway, sustainability, benefit to society and ethics are important criteria in GMO assessment prior to cultivation, import, and use as food or feed. The workshop will look at how this has evolved.

Put simply, if a measure, an action or a policy could harm the public or the environment, and there is no scientific consensus that it is not harmful, then one willing to act must prove the absence of danger. This is known as the precautionary principle, which belongs to the domain of risk management. However, there are differences in the way this is defined and applied across the world. Amir Muzur, from the School of Medicine, University of Rijeka, Croatia, will speak on the comparison between application in the EU and the USA.

How could policy-makers in the EU deal with socio-ethical considerations, as well as the regulatory challenges raised by scientific uncertainty, the speed of technological advance, technological complexity and issues related to public perception? How is this shaping decision-making in the field of agricultural biotechnologies? Register for the workshop before 20 January 2017 and take part in the discussion.


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Comments
  • In this presentation it reads: “if a measure, an action or a policy could harm the public or the environment, and there is no scientific consensus that it is not harmful, then one willing to act must prove the absence of danger. This is known as the precautionary principle”
    Here’s my opinion:

        1. Scientific consensus on so-called “GMOs” – and agri-food biotech at large
    A general scientific consensus on biotechnologies, initially regarding basic research, was established more than 40 years ago at Asilomar: it was rapidly applied to different biotech areas, from “red” (pharmaceuticals) to “green” (agri-food), “white” (industrial), “grey” (bioremediation) and in ecology as well. Unfortunately, the anti-biotech troops were very successful in framing the “GMO” ghost, and we are still suffering the consequences. Those who desire to learn more on this issue may want to read my paper: The necessary "GMO" denialism and scientific consensus, in Journal of Science Communication, 2016, 15 (04), Y01, p. 1-11, http://jcom.sissa.it/archive/15/04/JCOM_1504_2016_Y01
    
        2. Precautionary principle
    This problematic yet useful concept has been overstretched and misused far and wide. In particular, the above statement is incorrect, because the same EU Commission’s document on the subject that is referenced (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=URISERV%3Al32042) speaks clearly:
    

    The burden of proof
    In most cases, European consumers and the associations which represent them must demonstrate the danger associated with a procedure or a product placed on the market, except for medicines, pesticides and food additives.
    However, in the case of an action being taken under the precautionary principle, the producer, manufacturer or importer may be required to prove the absence of danger. This possibility shall be examined on a case-by-case basis. It cannot be extended generally to all products and procedures placed on the market.
    I tried to clarify the issue in another paper that I authored: The Precautionary principle: Its misunderstandings and misuses in relation to “GMOs”, in New Biotechnology (the official journal of the European Federation of Biotechnology), 25 June 2016, Volume 33, Number 4, p. 437-439, doi:10.1016/j.nbt.2016.02.007, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871678416000200

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