The lack of political decision-making is an underestimated factor in the discussion about genetically modified (GM) crops. Those involved continue to hide behind a lack of scientific and societal consensus. Furthermore, science and legislation are being strategically used to frustrate decision-making. In her dissertation, Ruth Mampuys of Erasmus School of Law, concludes that the scientific and societal discussion has lasted long enough and that politicians must demonstrate more decisiveness.
Science involves a certain degree of uncertainty, according to Mampuys. ‘Hundred percent safe or zero percent risk does not exist. For that reason, the decision whether a technology is “safe enough” is ultimately a political decision,’ she says. A comparison with the development of corona vaccines shows that things can be done differently. While those vaccines (which are also based on genetically modified organisms) were developed in record time, even involving some relaxation of regulations for environmental security, decision-making about genetically modified (GM) crops has been deadlocked for decades. Mampuys: ‘A vote by Member States systematically results in “no opinion” and the European Commission is reluctant to take a decision for them about a controversial issue.’
Illusion of working legislation
The current situation offers an 'illusion' of a working system. According to the PhD student, the real discussion about GM crops is not being conducted, but the European Commission is reluctant to adopt a position for strategic reasons. ‘That can be justified from the perspective of internal and external justification towards the Member States and non-European countries, but not towards supporters and opponents.’ The decision-making procedure offers no scope for political discussion and only seems to focus on safety. The only way for Member States to express their dissatisfaction is to frustrate the decision-making, for example by abstaining from voting. Because only safety arguments are considered legitimate, the discussion systematically gets out of hand, with people disagreeing about the risks and ultimately smear tactics being used by both supporters and opponents.
For her research, Mampuys analysed the advantages and limitations of using strategies focused on more scientific research, societal consensus and better legislation to improve decision-making about GM crops. As part of her study, she brought together various specialist fields, including sociology, political science, legal philosophy and science & technological studies (STS). This enabled her to analyse why there is a deadlock in decision-making about market authorisation for GM crops in Europe and how this can be addressed.
Discussion has gone on long enough
This discussion has been going on since the end of the 1990s, the PhD student has observed, for example because more research is being demanded or because public opinion needs to be sought again. And all this supplementary research never leads to decision-making. A sign for the PhD student that the discussion has gone on long enough. ‘Political decision-making plays a specific role in taking decisions, despite scientific uncertainties and the presence of fundamentally different positions. On the other hand, decisions are taken for other controversial subjects, like the use of pesticides or 5G. Urgency and political interests seem to be the deciding factors here, and that seems to be lacking for GM crops.’
Ruth Mampuys previously studied biochemistry and the philosophy of science. She then spent some time working for the Dutch Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM). On 28 January, she will defend her dissertation ‘The Deadlock in European GM crop Authorisations as a Wicked Problem by Design; A need for Repoliticisation of the Decision-making Process’ at Erasmus School of Law.