“Ethical and social considerations belong in the political arena.”

In the European debate about genetically modified plants there has for some time been a call for decisions concerning the cultivation of these plants to pay greater attention to the potential benefits and social and ethical aspects. Whether it is desirable and possible to stop basing decisions exclusively on the principle of risk prevention and the results of biosafety research is a matter of some discussion. GMO Safety spoke to Alfons Bora of the Institute of Science and Technology Research in Bielefeld about the position of scientific experts in politics and about the role of biosafety research in the public debate.

Alfons Bora 2

Prof. Dr. Alfons Bora of Bielefeld University teaches sociology and is a member of the Institute of Science and Technology Research. His fields include the interactions between science, politics and law, and options for public involvement in the development of science and technology.

GMO Safety: The results of biological safety research often appear to play only a subsidiary role in political decisions. How do you assess the way governments and society deal with expert knowledge? Do you believe the influence and credibility of experts is too low? Or are there other factors at work?

Alfons Bora: If you are saying that the results of e.g. biosafety research often play only a subsidiary role in political decisions, I’m not at all sure that I share your view. I think you have to see politics as having a front stage and a back stage. Backstage at least, experts have always played an important role and continue to do so. A lot of consultancy work goes on backstage. And if we’re talking about the area I call the front stage, in other words the public part of politics, even there I am not sure that your view holds true in general. Safety research is not playing a central role in the public debate at present, so at least where plant genetic engineering is concerned we don’t have a public debate at the moment.

GMO Safety: But if you think about the MON810 ban of two years ago, for instance, the scientific basis for the ban was rather slim, but the ban still went ahead.

Alfons Bora: I would not want to base a general judgement on that. It’s important to see that policy is of course not made by the experts. The expertocratic form of politics conceived of in the 1960s would not be an ideal model anyway. Political decisions and political processes follow their own particular logic. Some decisions will be made that appear unjustified from a scientific and technological point of view because political decisions are based on other components besides expert advice and opinions.

Whether the influence of experts is too big or too small – that’s a subject on which political views naturally vary widely. And I don’t know whether, from a scientific perspective, there would be an objective assessment criterion, or whether you have to say that a typical part of political debate is believing that experts who do not share your own view have too much influence and vice versa.

GMO Safety: In the debate about plant genetic engineering a recurrent theme is the issue of incalculable consequences and long-term consequences. Biosafety research cannot help here because scientific knowledge is always limited knowledge. How should society deal with this ‘not knowing’?

Alfons Bora: I think biosafety research does have something to contribute here. The not-knowing argument can be a very arbitrary one. Anyone who is opposed to a technology will tend to try to overemphasise the importance and extent of what we don’t know in the political debate. On the other side, of course, we have the opposite behaviour. It is this dilemma that provides the real platform for biosafety research – research that can tell us, reasonably reliably and with a reasonable degree of certainty, to what extent it is possible to make predictions and where it is no longer wise to do so. This is an important contribution to the public debate that should not be underestimated.

How society can deal with not knowing is a fairly difficult question. After all, society consists of a multitude of areas, each with its own mode of functioning and logic and its own view of the world. And each of these areas will approach the lack of knowledge in its own way. For science, it presents a constant challenge to research further and at the same time to keep saying that knowledge can never be complete. But this is a position that governments, for instance, cannot be satisfied with because they need to mobilise voter loyalty for a collective decision despite knowing that there are no immediate scientific answers to open questions. Politicians have to find the rationale and basis for their actions somewhere else, and they often get them from public support. In the area of law, the situation is different again. Here there is the basic concept of risk prevention, which states that if you want to ban something, there must be some evidence that the rights of others could be negatively affected. Law has its own criteria that cannot be replaced by something else. I would therefore advocate addressing the question of how society should deal with a lack of knowledge sector by sector and then see which problems arise from the differences between the different sectors – for instance if scientists are astonished that politicians do not view the fact that a ban is based on only a small number of scientific studies in the same way that such a situation would be viewed in a scientific debate.

GMO Safety: The discussion includes socio-economic criteria, which are to be included in the assessment of GM crops alongside scientific biosafety research. Do you think it makes sense for ethical, social and economic reasons to play a significant role in the assessment and maybe also in the approval of GMOs? And how could this be implemented sensibly?

Alfons Bora: First I think you have to understand that no assessment is ever entirely free from such criteria. Every assessment, regardless of where it is carried out, is based in part on criteria like these, whether or not the people conducting it are conscious of the fact. Even someone who says they going to evaluate only the probability of exposure of organism x in field y has already imported a normative framework by saying that it is a relevant criterion, that it should be taken into account in a decision.

As far as approval is concerned, the process is regulated by law. So it is difficult to introduce criteria that go further than simple risk prevention. For a time, some very prominent colleagues were asking whether it was possible for the approval process to include a kind of needs assessment; whether it would be legitimate to ask whether society actually needed the product in question, but that proved fairly difficult.

In terms of basic categorisation, I would always say that the aspects you mention – ethics and the social dimension – belong in the political arena to start with, and that politicians should not shirk from carrying out weighing-up and decision-making processes of this kind. Politicians are not constrained to following the legal or scientific path exclusively.

GMO Safety: Can processes like civil dialogues help with the assessment of GM crops?

Alfons Bora: In my opinion, none of these events are very useful in their current form, partly because they are non-binding. I developed a suggestion quite a long time ago to see whether in local contexts, where the issue is the deliberate release of a GM plant at a specific site in a specific project, it is possible to create an opportunity very early in the process for scientists and potential local opponents to come together in some kind of discussion or negotiation. However, this would result in something very different from what is currently being done through the civil dialogue process. I think it would be a good idea to rethink this approach. A process like this would need to be related to a specific project, it would need to start early on in the process, the results would need to be binding and their implementation verifiable and it would have to create incentives for those submitting projects for approval to go down this route.

GMO Safety: You are a member of the German Ethics Council. Does the Ethics Council also deal with issues of plant genetic engineering? In Switzerland, for instance, the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology has formulated a principle regarding the dignity of plants. The associated report is intended to provide guidance for legislators, for instance when taking decisions on genetic engineering issues. Are there recommendations from the German Ethics Council on ethical evaluations of GM plants? Which ethical criteria do you think it makes sense to include?

Alfons Bora: So far, the German Ethics Council has not addressed this area directly. There has just been a large public event on issues of world food, but problems of plant ethics were not a key focus. We will be dealing with synthetic biology at a public event in November and it is conceivable that plant ethics might play a very minor role here. But apart from this, the German Ethics Council has not yet looked at the issue. Personally, I tend towards one of the rationales described as anthropocentric and would attempt to expand on this in my argumentation so as to make it clear that there are areas where we can/should show a kind of respect for plant life, but a respect that is in no way comparable to what we mean when we discuss human dignity.

GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us.