Structure, Agency and Biotechnology: The Case of the Rothamsted GM Wheat Trials

Structure, Agency and Biotechnology: The Case of the Rothamsted GM Wheat Trials

by Aristeidis Panagiotou


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Structure, Agency and Biotechnology argues for the significance of sociological theory and highlights the insights it can offer to the study of agricultural biotechnology. Cautioning against a simplistic reading of the GM controversy as merely a debate of science versus politics, Aristeidis Panagiotou suggests that the discussion should be embedded in the wider social, political, economic and cultural contexts. Structure, Agency and Biotechnology assesses the 2012 Rothamsted GM wheat trials and proposes that the tension underlying GM technology should be resolved through sustained dialogue, public involvement and broad scientific consensus.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785271243
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 08/31/2019
Series: Key Issues in Modern Sociology
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Aristeidis Panagiotou is a researcher at the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV), Greece.

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The GM Controversy as a "Lightning Rod"

Over the past 20 years, biotechnology has gradually shifted from a paradigm of purely scientific research and experimentation to worldwide commercialization in a variety of industries, from agriculture and food production to chemicals and pharmaceuticals. While the rapidly expanding number of biotechnological applications and products has been met with skepticism or even fear, among consumers and public authorities, some societies, especially in North America, have proved to be more willing to accept the new technologies. In Britain and Europe, in general, genetically modified (GM) crops and food have become a cause célèbre among environmentalists and consumer protesters (Falkner 2000, 300). On many occasions, GM food — also frequently called by activists as "GM pollution" or Gen-Müll ("genetic garbage") — has been portrayed as an impurity contaminating science, agriculture, the environment and even democratic sovereignty. When the first US shipments containing GM soya and maize arrived at European ports in the fall of 1996, a concerted Europe-wide symbolic protest generated publicity around the fact that GM grain was entering processed food without labeling. Governments and agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) companies were accused of "force-feeding [consumers] GM food" and, as a response, NGOs carried out surveillance of food products for "GM contamination." Since then, the protest against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has ranged from symbolic moves with quasi-theatrical elements to resolute "decontamination" actions with potentially serious legal repercussions. Regarded as a technology with effects of potentially apocalyptic dimensions, the phrase "GM-free" quite often has had connotations similar to those of "nuclear-free" in the 1980s (Levidow 2009, 110).

Protests against GMOs have, however, never been strictly targeted toward GMOs per se; rather, they have always encompassed issues that stretch well beyond the particular locus of discontent. The anxieties about the safety of GMOs are certainly not the only issues in the GM controversy. Such concerns are "the entry point" for understanding what is at stake with GM technology and should be seen as "the start of the discussion rather than the end" (Sciencewise 2011, 3). Other considerations that are often part and parcel of the GM discussion include the issue of sustainability and the environmental impacts of GM technologies; questions about intellectual property, patenting, the livelihoods of developing country farmers; and the questions of democratic governance and sound regulation (Sciencewise 2011, 3, 4). Therefore, instead of framing the commercialization of GM technology as a binary decision, it would be more consistent with the messages articulated by interested parties to envisage the conjuncture as "a lightning rod for many other issues — about fairness, access and corporate control of the food system" (Burrows, qtd. in House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2014a, 11).

Public Sentiment, Scientific Viewpoints and Legislative Frameworks: A Dissonant Coexistence

The EU regulatory system

The concern about agbiotech has been vibrant not only across various sectors of the civil society but has also stirred a controversy among authorities at an international level. While in the United States GM foods are placed on the market without being subject to any form of mandatory labeling (World Health Organization 2005, 51), in the EU, legislation is much stricter. At the time of writing, for a GM crop to be imported, tested, cultivated or marketed in a European country, very firm criteria should be adhered to (European Commission, 2012d). However, the EU did not have such a strict regulatory system from the very beginning. In fact, a number of GM crops were approved in the mid-1990s (including the Flavr Savr GM tomato paste that was sold and subsequently withdrawn in the UK in 1996), but as the issue of GM technology became increasingly controversial, the EU faced intense pressure from its member states to develop a more robust regulatory system. As a consequence, a de facto moratorium was placed by the EU on GM products, starting October 1998 (The European Union Center of North Carolina 2007, 1). While member states debated and eventually passed new legislation on the approval of GMOs and their labeling and traceability standards, in 2003 the United States filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) arguing that the moratorium the EU and six member states had maintained was illegal, costing US exports $300 million per year (World Trade Organization 2008). The European Commission (EC) characterized the filing of the complaint as "legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful." The EU Commissioner for the Environment also added: "This US move is unhelpful. It can only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult. [...] We should not be deflected or distracted from pursuing the right policy for the EU" (European Commission 2003a). With the complaint at the WTO pending, the EU adopted Regulation 1829/2003 on GM food and feed and Regulation 1830/2003 on GMOs, traceability, labeling and derived food and feed (European Commission 2012b). Although in 2006 the WTO ruled against the EU, the United States, supported by Canada and Argentina, was still unhappy with the procedures that it found too convoluted and "based on political expediency more than on health or safety concerns" (Euractiv 2006).

Partially as a response to international discontent, in mid-2010 the Commission proposed a new set of rules for the authorization of GMOs that would allow EU countries to restrict or ban GMO cultivation on their territory by using any acceptable reason under the treaty establishing the European Community without undermining the EU risk assessment, which would remain unchanged (European Commission 2012c). In the same year, the European Commission approved the cultivation of the GM potato "Amflora" developed by BASF — the first GM cultivation approval in 12 years (Euractiv 2010) and, one year later, the EU allowed traces of unapproved GM material in animal feed imports (Euractiv 2011). The year 2011 was also when EC president Manuel Barroso appointed the Commission's first chief scientific adviser (CSA), Professor Anne Glover (Europa 2011). Professor Glover made her affinity to GMOs well known in a number of interviews she gave by overtly expressing her disapproval of the precautionary principle, the fundamental notion all EU directives on GMOs abide by (Euractiv 2012c), and by her willingness to eat GM food if it were approved in Europe (EuropaBio 2012d). The precautionary principle — which asks scientists and policymakers under circumstances of uncertainty to err on the side of caution — is a fundamental notion in the GM debate and will be extensively discussed in Chapter 7. The contribution of Anne Glover as CSA was, however, short-lived. The newly elected president of the EC, Jean-Claude Juncker, swiftly removed Glover from the position of CSA by reaffirming, nonetheless, his commitment to "independent scientific advice" (Fleming 2014). President Juncker's decision to relieve Glover of her duties and eventually axe the position of CSA was met with opposing reactions. NGOs such as Greenpeace and Corporate Europe Observatory endorsed the decision, as they discerned "fundamental flaws" in the role of the CSA, which made "the influence of corporate lobbyists [...] even easier" (Nelsen, "NGO backlash to Chief Scientific Advisor position grows," 2014). At the same time, Conservative Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the European Association for Bio-industries (EuropaBio) and certain scientific circles reacted angrily to the news of Glover's departure and accused President Juncker of caving in to the Green lobby (Fleming 2014; Delingpole 2014).

In 2014, after almost a decade of legal battles, the EU policy on GMOs changed direction once again. In June of that year, the EU approved the 2010 EC proposal and finally reached an agreement to allow its member states to restrict or ban cultivation of GMO crops on their territory by adopting an opt-out measure. By October 3, 2015, 19 of the 28 EU member states (including Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland) informed the EC that they wished to opt out of new GMO cultivation approvals. Belgium and Britain, on the other hand, asked that the opt-out mechanism be applicable to only certain parts of their countries' territories (DW 2015). This move has been considered as a considerable blow to the biotech industry, as it is estimated that with the new EU rules, around two-thirds of the EU's population and arable land will be GM-free; that is, only 140,000 hectares of land will be cultivated with GM crops in the EU, compared to 181m hectares in the rest of the world (Nelsen 2015).

England decides to endorse GM cultivation while the rest of the UK opt out

The divided opinion on GMOs within the EU is also apparent among UK countries. While Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all adopted the opt-out rules, England has decided to allow GM crop cultivation. The British government's endorsement of GM technology and general affinity to the use of advanced genetic techniques in crop improvement has been overtly expressed by its members. In an often-quoted speech to the National Farmers' Union in February 2013, Owen Patterson, MP, the secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), voiced his concern that "the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of this technology while Europe risks being left behind." The EU regulatory arrangements were construed as being in a state of "paralysis" as the UK government was looking at "how best to capitalize on the UK's world-class science and technology [...] and take advantage of opportunities to export UK agri-tech skills and services" (Patterson 2013). The EU approval process was also the point of criticism by DEFRA minister, Lord de Mauley, who characterized it as an "unduly slow operation [...] that is deterring investment and innovation in this technology" (Case 2012a). The commitment to reaping the potential benefits of GM technology was reaffirmed by Patterson's replacement, Elizabeth Truss, MP, who argued that "[GM crops] have a role to play here in Britain" and that "[British] farmers need access to the technology that will help them work in world markets" (Webster 2015). The optimism that GM technology heralds, however, is not shared by the governments of the other UK nations. As GM policy is devolved within the UK, the policies of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which espoused the opt-out clause of the EU, come in direct contrast to that of the UK government. Richard Lochhead, Scotland's environment secretary, said he wanted to uphold the precautionary principle since he believed that the potential risks to other crops and wildlife from GMOs outweighed the likely benefits of the technology. He also clearly expressed his long-standing concerns about GM crops and argued that "allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14bn food and drink sector" (The Scottish Government 2015). The decisions of Northern Ireland and Wales to ban GM crops were articulated around similar discursive motifs. Environment Minister Mark Durkan announced that he remained "unconvinced of the advantages of GM crops" and considered it "prudent to prohibit their cultivation here for the foreseeable future." He also added that "we are rightly proud of our natural environment and rich biodiversity [...] I am concerned that the growing of GM crops, which I acknowledge is controversial, could potentially damage that image" (Northern Ireland Executive 2015). The Welsh Deputy Minister for Farming and Food, Rebecca Evans, for her part, also stressed the "need to preserve consumer confidence and maintain our focus on a clean, green, natural environment. By having the ability to control what is grown in Wales, we can have confidence in preserving these values" (qtd. in Sarich 2015).

The STC inquiry

The British government's decision to allow cultivation of GM crops in England was not simply a political choice, but was a decision endorsed by numerous independent scientists, scientific bodies, research centers and professional associations with or without declared interests in the technology. On February 14, 2014 — that is, almost twenty months before the government's final decision — the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (STC), whose role is to "ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence" (UK Parliament 2015), launched an inquiry on "GM foods and application of the precautionary principle in Europe." The chair of the STC, Andrew Miller, MP, explained that "GM technology potentially offers an array of benefits, but concerns are being expressed that it is being held back by misuse of the precautionary principle" and that the purpose of the inquiry was to assess "whether such restrictions are hampering UK scientific competitiveness, and whether they are still appropriate in light of the available evidence on the safety of GM" (qtd. in Committee 2014). By April 23, more than sixty influential individual and collective actors with specialties in the field responded to the STC's call for written evidence on the effectiveness of EU and UK safety regulations, the existence of barriers to the conduct of research on GM foods and the appropriateness of the application of the precautionary principle in the EU and the UK (Committee 2014). In October 2014, contributions to the cross-parliamentary inquiry launched by the STC were further expanded with the invitation of more than thirty interested members to provide oral evidence in the House of Commons on the regulations restricting the growth of GM foods in the UK and across the European continent.

The submitted evidence highlighted the profoundly controversial nature of the GM debate. One thing that became apparent from the STC inquiry is that there is not only stark disagreement on the appropriateness of the precautionary principle as a valid tool for risk assessment, but there is also a lack of consensus on fundamental issues intrinsic to GM technology. Four overarching themes can be discerned across apparent advocates of GMOs:

• There is no credible scientific evidence against the safety of GMOs to human health and the environment;

• There are significant benefits in GMOs as these can play a major role in meeting the future challenges of global population growth, climate change effects and food security;

• The precautionary principle is either irrelevant or misused;

• The EU regulation is sluggish and heavily politicized.

The cluster of individual and collective actors who developed their positions along these four main blocks include, among others, advisory bodies such as the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), political organizations such as DEFRA and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), corporations and corporate groups such as the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), BASF plc, Bayer CropScience Ltd, independent scientific bodies and research centers such as the James Hutton Institute, the John Innes Centre, the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, Sense about Science and the Science Council, and also scientists who specialized in the field, such as Professor C. J. Pollock (chair of the Scientific Steering Committee, which oversaw the Farm-Scale Trials of GM herbicide-tolerant crops, and chair of ACRE for 14 years up to 2013), Sir Mark Walport (the CSA of the UK government and cochair of the Council for Science and Technology (CST)), Dr. Julian Little(chair of ABC), Sir David Baulcombe (Regius Professor of Botany, University of Cambridge, and main author of the "GM science update" report submitted to CST, often referred to as the "Baulcombe report") and more.

The expressed certainty on the safety of GM foods and the optimism on the potential benefits of GM technology were, however, challenged by a significant number of respondents. Various individual and collective actors stated their concerns regarding the possible undesired consequences that GMOs may have on the natural and social environments. There appears to be a homophony among participants who opted for a more cautious approach to the cultivation and commercialization of GMOs on at least five major themes:

• There is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs;

• While GMOs may display some benefits, these are seriously overstated by GM advocates;

• The precautionary principle should be sustained as an informing principle of risk assessment;

• There are serious concerns that GM technology is — and will be — appropriated by large corporations that create an oligopolistic environment;

• The focus on GM technology, in essence, undermines the consideration of alternative agricultural innovations and techniques.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; List of Abbreviations; 1. A Holistic Approach to the GM Controversy; 2. Rethinking Science, Technology & Society Relations: Definitions, Boundaries and Underlying Theoretical Problems; 3. Science and Technology Studies: A Critical Overview of the Field; 4. Benton, Mouzelis, Stones: Some Key Advances in Contemporary Sociology; 5. A Holistic Framework for the Study of Agricultural Biotechnology 6. The Rothamsted GM Wheat Trials (I): Technology and Appropriation; 7. The Rothamsted GM Wheat Trials (II): Ideology; 8. What is the GM Controversy? Science, Politics and Prospects; 9. Conclusion; Notes; Bibliography; Index.

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From the Publisher

“This work is both a sophisticated theoretical synthesis and a finely worked case illuminating a topic of profound importance: genetic modification. Panagiotou’s labors bring much-needed clarity to this complex and contested world, moving us well beyond the simple binaries of truth and politics, science and publics. It is recommended to those with an interest in the environment, policy and governance, risk, science and technology, and social theory.” —Steve Matthewman, Associate Professor, Head of Sociology, University of Auckland, New Zealand

“This is a fascinating account of the intricacies of one of the most important GMO episodes in the UK. Yet, the greatest achievement of this book lies in its combining a detailed case-study, arguably the hallmark of STS scholarship, with the willingness to engage with contemporary macrosociological theory.” —Eve Seguin, Professor, Department of Political Science & Programme of Postgraduate Studies in Science, Technology and Society, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada

“This is a masterful piece of holistic sociological theory framing the study of a GM controversy. Revisiting structuration theory, Panagiotou offers a very rich discussion of the particularities anchored across different locations. His book presents a critical understanding of science and technology using sociological concepts and methodological bracketing.” —Dominique Vinck, Full Professor, STS Lab, University of Lausanne, Switzerland

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