Risk: safety is just the start if we want good regulation

Risk: safety is just the start if we want good regulation

GM a solution to the food crisis?

Transgenic crops are being put forward as a solution to the food crisis. The controversies that dogged their introduction, at least in Europe, are being dismissed as dangerous distractions.

This paper analyses the risk associated with food safety regulation versus genetically modified (GM) food production. It is argued that European Food safety regulation was in flux before the GM controversy. The EU and many member states introduced a new division of labour between government departments responsible for promoting the food industry and those in charge of making sure it was safe. This has led to the recognition of ‘risk assessment policy’ through which social framing assumptions shape various aspects of risk assessment, and increased attention to divergent values associated with the outputs of risk assessment. Outside Europe, very different approaches to regulating the risks from GMOs have been adopted, with perhaps the most fundamental differences associated with labelling. Labelling of GM products, central to food sovereignty concerns, began in Europe in 1998, as retailers sought to preserve consumer trust in their own brands. EU legislation later standardized requirements across different firms and Member States. Europe is still grappling with the co-existence challenges that this legislation raises.

Over the past decade, the ways that the risks of transgenic crops are governed in Europe have evolved considerably in other ways. In particular, regulators have begun to look beyond the products themselves to consider the management regimes and social contexts in which they would be used.

The author recommends that:

  • by building in public participation, an alertness to uncertainty and greater space for assessing the social implications of new technology, Europe will be increasingly well-equipped to make sound decisions that build food safety, food security and food sovereignty
  • applications for cultivation of GM crops in the EU must now be accompanied by a monitoring plan to identify problems that had not been considered prior to release
  • a clear framing stage that specifies the most appropriate forms of assessment in the terms of reference to assessors is required, to ensure adequate attention is given to the most salient characteristics of a food safety threat, while at the same time guarding against overly burdensome assessments
  • evaluation is needed to deliver more legitimate value-based judgements on tolerability or acceptability
  • management is required to select the most appropriate measures and to aid implementation and monitoring.
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