GMOs, Risk, and the Precautionary Principle

Marcelo Gortari

In several decades, the human population is projected to reach a staggering 9 billion people. In the face of this astronomical growth, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) seem to promise the perfect solution. With engineered traits such as greater resistance to floods, droughts, and pests, GMOs suggest higher production of food for both developed and developing nations at precisely the moment in history when it is needed most.

Unfortunately, scientific certainty surrounding the safety and potential negative side effects of GMO technology to both humans and the environment does not exist. The clinical trials carried out to ensure that negative externalities do not affect humans and the environment are conducted by the same private firms that created the products, raising conflict of interest concerns. Given the potential for adverse consequences, it is critical that policymakers enact legislation that properly regulates GMOs.

Genetic manipulation and the subsequent transfer to host organisms is likely to yield results that cannot be predicted with accuracy, especially since genes control aspects of an organism such as metabolism, aging, and reproduction that take time to become apparent. Foreign genes are being introduced into complex organisms, and are then being released into complex ecosystems. Although not a GMO, exotic species such as zebra mussels in the Great Lakes have resulted in disastrous effects for their new ecosystems and have proven next to impossible to remove from the area. Likewise, GMOs could wreak havoc on ecosystems even though they have been tested and deemed safe in a manufactured environment. Once GMO species are introduced into new environments they cannot be effectively confined to their new surroundings, leading many experts to be concerned about “GMO pollution,” whereby GMO species breed with their wild counterparts.

There is also the possibility that GMOs will produce entirely new toxins during pollination season, which could have unintended consequences for organisms linked to these plants, as well as the possibility of producing deadly allergens. For example, government officials in Brazil narrowly avoided danger when they realized in the pre-market phase that soybeans that had been injected with genes from a Brazil nut had also inherited a severe allergen from the nuts.

In the face of scientific uncertainty and questionable legitimacy regarding the governance of GMOs, the government of Canada should adopt a more risk-averse approach to the control of this technology. Canada should consider following the European model, whereby regulation of GMOs occurs after substantial public input and deliberation on an on-going basis. This model serves as a method to mitigate the efforts of self-interested stakeholders.

Public oversight should incorporate the “precautionary principle,” and create a risk-management framework that questions the science involved in producing technological innovations. The precautionary principle originated in Germany in the 1960s, and loosely translates into the normative idea that governments are obligated to “foresee and forestall” harm to the environment. In the following decades, the precautionary principle has served as the normative guideline for policymaking by many national governments as, for instance, in the charter of the European Union, Canadian environmental law, and in the Bamako Convention on Hazardous Waste in Africa. It has also been incorporated into several global treaties concerning environmental issues including fisheries, North Sea pollution, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Rio Declaration.

The precautionary principle has legal precedence in major legislations concerning genetically modified organisms such as the Gene Technology Act (1993) in Norway and the European Union directive 2001/18/EC, with regard to the intentional release of GMOs into the environment. The Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity, the international agreement to regulate the cross-boundary movement of living modified organisms (LMOs) to which Canada is a signatory, also emphasizes the need for a precautionary approach.

Despite the presence of the precautionary principle in many legal agreements around the world, Canada has hardly been progressive on GMO regulation. Canada’s approach to GMOs has traditionally been one of “managerial rationality,” in which the scientific discipline is regarded as nearly infallible and the firms bringing their genetically modified products to market are given considerable leeway in evaluating their safety. Not only does this create cause for concern regarding public health and environmental safety in the long term, it also impedes the image of a free and democratic nation that Canada frequently projects to the rest of the world.

Marcelo Gortari is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto and a BA in International Area Studies from Drexel University. He was born and raised in Toronto, and spent eight years teaching English in South Korea, five of which were at the college/university level. He has also taught English as a Second Language at York University for eight months.

Further Reading

John Applegate, “The Prometheus Principle: Using the Precautionary Principle to Harmonize the Regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms”

Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity (CBD) website

Eric Monpetit and Christian Rouillard, “Culture and the Democratization of Risk Management: The Widening Gap Between Canada and France”

Anne Myhr, “A Precautionary Approach to Genetically Modified Organisms: Challenges and Implications for Policy and Science”

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4 responses to “GMOs, Risk, and the Precautionary Principle

  1. Hi Marcelo,

    I’m taking this opportunity to test out the new login function on the PPGR website!

    Concerning the case of the “brazil nut soybean”: the circumstances are a little bit different than what you reported in your post. The original test was done at the University of Nebraska, using Soybeans developed by a company called Pioneer Hi-Bred (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199603143341103). Since “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has directed developers of new plant varieties to consider the allergenic potential of donor organisms in assessing the safety of foods derived from genetically engineered plants”, the company had testing done at the University, with the result that the allergenicity of the soybean was discovered. And this wasn’t at all some sort of unexpected or unusual result, but was actually fairly expected. Since they were introducing the genetic ability to produce the protein found in the Brazil Nut. It was entirely reasonable that the new soybean would produce exactly that protein, and thus people would be allergic.

    I believe that the GMO soybean’s properties were caught appropriately during standard safety testing, which reassures me that the system of producing these modifications is becoming more and more robust. As policy practitioners, I believe that limiting our use of new tools and technologies for food productions is limiting to the more global problem of sustainably feeding people in every country, and preserving a stable agricultural yield in even unforgiving terrain. There’s a lot of fear out there about GMOs, which leads to a lot of weird and strident evidence and viewpoints; countered by a lot of pro-agribusiness willingness to NOT ask any futher questions. I don’t think either point of view can really form a platform to the future.

  2. Hi Jeremy,

    Thank you for that clarification! The evidence I referred to regarding genetically-modified soybeans using protein from Brazil nuts was gleaned from an article published in 2001. As a graduate policy student, I have not had the opportunity to examine that particular case in more depth.

    Therefore, based on your input, my source’s contention that authorities were surprised by the resultant allergen does seem less plausible. However, that particular instance occurred in Brazil itself, not the U.S., so I am not sure whether that would make a difference.

    You will note, also, that I stated that Brazilian authorities were nearly caught off guard by this, not the producing company itself. It would not be the first time a company mistakenly (or even knowingly) brought a product to market that was potentially harmful to the public. As you and our readers know, the recent tainted beef scandal in Canada involving XL Foods is an excellent example; substantial safeguards, protocols and oversight are in place, but somehow beef contaminated with E. coli still made its way into supermarkets.

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