NGO position on GMOs

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Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as a whole, are for the protection of nature and humans against GMOs . Speech to  Marjana Dermelj from the Slovenian Foundation for Sustainable Development .

Principle of trust in science and precautionary principle

Scientists, as well as politicians, often point out that decisions related to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be based on the principle of trust in science ( sound science). We know, however, that knowledge is limited and, therefore, surprises in the use of new technologies are inevitable. In assessing the benefits and costs of introducing these, science faces a fundamental challenge. Indeed, we know little about this issue and science, meanwhile, is not unanimous on conquered knowledge. In addition, there are many problems that we do not even know exist. For example, at the beginning of the use of new technologies, science has been unable to predict or report, for example, the formation of the ozone hole , the sudden onset of mad cow disease and other problems. Similar.

In the use and development of genetically modified organisms, the question also arises as to how to decide on their use if, in the face of economic pressures, we take into account both the precautionary principle and uncertainty. Science can not offer definitive answers; for that, it is possible that politics, which is based solely on the principle of trust in science, is itself not trustworthy. Ethical issues are therefore at the heart of the problem.

The duty to prevent environmental damage is based on a known risk, while the concept of precaution is based on lack of certainty. The applicationof the precautionary principle and thus the recognition of uncertainty, is one of the possibilities to reduce the risk in the use of new technologies and also genetically modified organisms. This principle is not a blind opposition to innovations, it recognizes the inevitable limits of our knowledge, which should lead to greater modesty in the assessment of the level of science and require greater vigilance and reflection in decision-making. Many scientists are concerned that initiatives supporting the application of the precautionary principle in decision making actually mean the end of research. But it seems to be the exact opposite,

The problem of science is not only uncertainty or lack of knowledge about non-knowledge; there is also an insufficient number of interdisciplinary approaches to the study of particular problems. Most research, and therefore political decisions, continue to be based on a reductionist and anthropocentric approach. Genetically modified organisms are just one example. In genetic engineering , genes represent Lego cubes with which it is possible to construct any structure of life. Such an approach ignores and does not recognize complex interactions.

For this, certain scientific disciplines completely dominate the decision-making processes, at the risk of leading to what is called institutional ignorance, on which political decisions are based. Experiments show that in the case of both asbestos use and radiation, clinical physicians have focused mainly on immediate acute effects, and in both cases toxicological and epidemiological investigations have been neglected. to assess chronic problems, which has influenced the development of standards from which these two areas have been regulated. It was the same with MTBE, used in gasoline instead of lead. The decision to introduce it relied on the knowledge related to engines, the combustion and pollution of the air , but it has neglected the aspect of water pollution, although data were available. In fact, decisions are made from risk assessments that are often based on information from those whose products are subject to risk assessment. Also, independent sources of information are the necessary condition for independent, accurate and trustworthy evaluation. Cases of use of benzene , PCB , asbestos and chlorofluorocarbonsshow that knowledge was available well before managers decided to take action. The question is why this knowledge has not been expressed before in better legislation, standards and stricter regulations.

For these reasons, in debates about the risks and benefits of using genetically modified organisms, we must take into account past experiences. In addition to scientific advice, decision-makers should take greater account of the views and values ​​of public opinion. This would broaden the assessment of the benefits and risks of using GMOs. Their use is not only related to the environmental and health aspects but also to the social and economic risks that are excluded from the risk assessments of the use of genetically modified organisms.

Risk of using genetically modified organisms

In each society, the risk resulting from the use of genetically modified organisms is different or its perception is different. When we accept the limits of our understanding and our knowledge of the nature of a certain problem, the question arises as to what risk a given society is willing to accept. The use of genetically modified organisms is risky because of the nature of the transformation of the organism. The degree of risk also depends on the natural data of each environment and system as well as on the effectiveness of the legal protection with which we wish to exclude or reduce it, and to distribute its consequences as socially as possible.

Legal vacuum in some countries

Due to an incomplete legal framework, the control of the import and use of genetically modified organisms may not be carried out in some countries (as in Slovenia in 2003). If there is no control over the presence of genetically modified organisms in the seed material, we can rightly assume that GMOs are spreading uncontrollably in agricultural ecosystems , thus threatening the purity of the crop. seed material used by farmers from season to season. In addition, because of this contamination , once the control system has been put in place, the economic existence of ecological and conventional farmers who do not want to cultivate

Application and enforcement of environmental legislation can be problematic. In the case of the control of the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms, the difficulties in carrying out the supervisory work of the inspectors may be all the greater since it is also necessary to separate and harmonize the operation of inspections, of customs officers, who may be the responsibility of several different ministries.

Composition of the scientific committees and problem of the respect of the exclusion of interests

The adopted law on the treatment of genetically modified organisms has appointed two scientific committees which submit to the competent body an opinion on requests to work with genetically modified organisms in closed systems, for their deliberate release into the environment and their implementation. on the market. In Slovenia, non-governmental organizations have not obtained that their representatives are also appointed to these scientific committees, although this is a common practice in many EU countries and candidate countries. entry into Europe. The participation of representatives of non-governmental organizations in such committees increases transparencyin the adoption of opinions and the preparation of risk assessments for each application. In addition, in practice, the precautionary principle is also more often taken into account, which is reflected in stricter criteria for granting authorizations. The law states, it is true, that the cooperation of the public in the decision-making process is possible, but this only after the opinion of the scientific committee has been rendered.

The profiles of the specialists in Slovenia who present their opinions on the applications and the risk assessment unfortunately do not reflect the complexity of the problem of the use of genetically modified organisms. Indeed, among the persons mentioned, there are no representatives of those branches of science who consider the spread of genetically modified organisms especially from the point of view of systems (ecologists, entomologists, etc.). Admittedly, the law recognizes that the scientific committee also invites specialists from other branches to participate in the work, but the question arises as to how often the members of the scientific committees fulfill this right and this duty.

Respect for the exclusion of interests is also the other problem of the functioning of such committees. This problem, probably present everywhere, is even more noticeable in Slovenia because of its specific smallness. How, because of the small number of national specialists and the existing working links between the competent institutions, can the activity of the members of the scientific committees be guaranteed in accordance with this principle?

The question of the level of democracy and the consideration of external costs

The use of genetically modified organisms and especially their deliberate release into the environment is also related to the question of the level of democracy. Is the right of the peasant who wants to cultivate genetically modified organisms superior to the right of the one who does not want and vice versa? If the farmer who decides to cultivate genetically modified organisms potentially threatens the decisions of another person who objects to their use, it is the duty of the farmer who grows genetically modified organisms to take the appropriate measures which will reduce to a maximum the possibility of contamination of genetically unmodified products. Consequently, the minimum separation distance.

Similarly, in the calculation of the economic justification of GMO cultivation, other costs ( segregation , separate conservation and separate production processes, labeling and traceability ) should also be taken into account. cover the share of external costs that we face also in other types of pollution.

Moratorium on the deliberate release of GMOs

Because of the mentioned arguments relating to the problem of scientific definition of risk, uncertainty and (non) respect of the precautionary principle, it is necessary to ensure a moratoriumof a few years as to the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms. By this decision, the precautionary principle would be respected in a consistent way, and while the moratorium is in place, scientists and policy makers could focus their work in the following areas:

  • research on the influence of the spread of genetically modified agricultural products on the social, economic, ethical and environmental aspects of the development of society;
  • research on the possibilities of coexistence of the following forms of agriculture cultivation of genetically modified agricultural products, conventional cultivation and ecological cultivation;
  • study on the issue of environmental responsibility and the protection of farmers’ rights;
  • general work on the economic influence of the deliberate release of any genetically modified agricultural product and on the possibility of coexistence and conservation of opportunities for other modes of agriculture.

Dr. Kimberly Seltzer

Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley Research Assistant, MIT

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