GM Foods Regulation: Coming to Terms with the Lay Conception of Risk

By Lyne Letourneau, Olga Carolina Cardenas Gomez and Vincent Richard.

Published by Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

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Foods derived from genetically modified organisms have given rise to much controversy. Deeply affected by rapid advancement in science and technology, modern societies are grappling with their avowed aversion to risk. Food sociologist Poulain notes that, paradoxically, the “more [food] safety and quality spread into corporate and government discourse, the more anxiety spread among consumers.” From an ethical perspective, two elements can be identified as a source of tension operating at the level of novel food risk analysis: (1) the use of a broader conception of risk by consumers and (2) the coexistence of three conceptual frameworks relating to the acceptability of risk. We will discuss both elements in the context of novel food policy. The sociology of risk points to a shift between expert and lay assessment of risk. Whereas experts focus on the safety of novel foods for humans, animals and the environment, non-experts adopt a much broader series of non-safety factors, including economic, ethical, social and aesthetic concerns. Indeed, according to food sociologist Fischler, we do not consume everything that is biologically edible, or in other words safe to eat, because everything that is biologically edible is not culturally edible. Acknowledging such concerns, a broader definition of risk is slowly emerging through regulatory initiatives making allowance for non-safety criteria into the approval process of novel foods. Some countries are moving away from a science-based risk assessment towards an evaluation based on the social acceptability of risk. The case of Norway and Australia will be presented. Yet, if such an innovation is likely to remove the first source of tension, decision-making still faces the challenge raised by the coexistence of three conceptual frameworks relating to the acceptability of risk: integrity, optimization, and autonomy. Consensus is likely to be unattainable on the issues involved.

Keywords: Novel Foods, Genetically Modified Organisms, Policy Regulations, Risk Analysis, Conceptions of Risk, Experts, Consumers, Social Acceptability of Risk, Ethics

Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp.15-29. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 412.477KB).

Lyne Letourneau

Associate Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, Laval University, Quebec, Quebec, Canada

Lyne Létourneau is an associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Laval University. She holds a Doctorate degree in law from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland as well as a Master degree in law and Bachelor degree in law from the University of Montreal. Combining her legal background with an expertise in ethics, her research interests focus on the interface between regulation and ethics in agricultural biotechnology and animal protection. In addition to peer-reviewed publications on animal law and ethics, and the ethical, policy and regulatory issues raised by the genetic engineering of animals and plants, she is the author of L’expérimentation animale: l’homme, l’éthique et la loi (1990); and director of Bio-ingénierie et responsabilité sociale (2006).

Olga Carolina Cardenas Gomez

Doctorate Student, Faculty of Law, Université Laval, Quebec, Quebec, Canada

Olga Carolina Cardenas graduated as a lawyer from the Universidad del Cauca in Colombia. She also holds a specialization in law and new technologies of life from the Universidad Externado de Colombia and a Master degree in law from Laval University in Quebec (Canada). Currently, she is completing her Ph.D. in law at Laval University. Her current work involves an analysis of the organizational culture of the Canadian authorities responsible for decision-making regarding animal biotechnology. She seeks to explain how these authorities may (or may not) consider non-scientific arguments, including ethics, in public policy as well as in approving products derived of genetically modified animals.

Dr. Vincent Richard

Conseiller en éthique, Laval University, Quebec, Quebec, Canada

Vincent Richard is an assistant professor in the Departement of Studies on Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Education at Laval University. He holds a Ph.D. in science education from Laval University. His research interests relate to the relationship between science and society, and he is particularly interested in epistemological issues surrounding science education. He has published on ethical questions with regard to genetically modified organisms.