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15 October 2015

Where next for GM Insects?

— Posted by @ 3:12pm

By Roland Jackson, Sciencewise Executive Chair

On 13 October I had the privilege of appearing before the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry on GM Insects on behalf of Sciencewise, in the company of Sarah Hartley of the University of Nottingham and Sue Hartley of the British Ecological Society. The focus of the session was on public awareness and engagement, and the lessons from the experience of debates on GM crops. The written evidence from Sciencewise, with all the others, is here.

It is early days in this inquiry – ours was the second oral evidence session after colleagues from BBSRC, BIS and InnovateUK – but some immediate reflections occur.

The first is the framing of this inquiry around GM insects specifically. In other words, as a technology (or technologies) at an early stage in search of solutions. The implicit agenda was the opportunity for UK leadership and commercial benefit, although the ‘industry’ is in its infancy. The only commercial company in the world currently deploying this technology, Oxitec, is of UK origin and has just been bought by a US company for some $160m.

But perhaps that is exactly why we should be having discussions about the implications now, learning from the lessons of GM crop debates. Should we not be addressing questions of public interest and concern, and of public good priorities, before (most) choices are made and trajectories get fixed? However, it may be more constructive to have those discussions in the context of key challenges to human health or agriculture rather than a narrow focus on one particular set of technologies.

If this is considered a worthy aim – and it will be interesting to see where the Committee comes down on this – the question is how? What are the implications for shaping regulation and for governance processes within the innovation system?

Two things struck me sharply about the written evidence submitted. The first is that the deficit model and the championing of a science-based regulatory system as the sole arbiter of decisions about the deployment of technologies is alive and well in the business sector. As the Bioindustries Association put it: ‘…some technologies risk being politicised in response to perceived public concerns…’; and as Oxitec expressed itself on GM crops: ‘…which society has politicised in the EU…’. Is there really no recognition that the spread (or not) of a technology is a social process, with its impact on economies and cultures – such as visions of agriculture, and of ‘naturalness’ –on jobs and ways of life, in the UK and abroad? There will be winners and losers, benefits and disbenefits. How could this not, in the most general sense, be a political process, informed by the science but by no means determined by it? It is noticeable that the evidence from many public sector bodies, such as BBSRC and InnovateUK, acknowledged these dimensions. The public sector understands the issues even if it struggles at times to address them. The private sector seems woefully adrift.

The second is the repeated suggestion with respect to regulatory processes, made in evidence from different bodies, that benefits should be assessed as well as risks, because a risk-based model has ‘failed’. This argument is fundamentally flawed unless the whole regulatory system is to change. Benefit is not the opposite of risk, nor can it be assessed in the same manner as a science-based risk assessment of safety to human health and the environment. The opposite to benefit is disbenefit, or disadvantage, of which risks to human health and the environment are but one aspect. If benefits are to be considered, then so must disbenefits, which go well beyond questions of risk.

The regulatory system cannot be expected to cope with this, nor should it. These broader political issues, which include policies for the risk assessment itself, are questions for wider stakeholders and society. They need to be embraced by the governance structures of our innovation system; by the relevant Government departments, InnovateUK, the Research Councils, other funders, and business organisations. That necessitates a greater diversity of expertise and voices around the points of power, as choices are made about priorities, directions and funding. As things stand, the business sector is privileged in terms of its access to, and membership of, governing bodies and funding panels. Civil society organisations and wider perspectives are demonstrably absent (see here for an analysis for the Research Councils) and tend to have to shout from the side-lines to be heard. That is not a state of affairs likely to reduce polarisation.

There are of course many other ways of bringing in these voices and expertise through stakeholder and public engagement, and particularly through the mode of deliberative dialogue that Sciencewise supports. In the temporary absence of a wholesale refashioning of our governance systems these should now be explored. It will be interesting to see if the Committee recommends that the relevant public sector bodies, and others, should actively consider now how they might engage wider expertise and public input into exploring the potential for GM insect technologies to contribute to particular pressing challenges. These might focus on human health and agriculture, in the context of other approaches to addressing the same challenges within those domains.

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