Regulating biotechnological risk, straining Britain's consultative style

Levidow, Les; Carr, Susan and Wield, David (1999). Regulating biotechnological risk, straining Britain's consultative style. Journal of Risk Research, 2(4) pp. 307–324.



Public controversy has intensifed over the environmental effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) amid contending accounts of sustainable agriculture. In regulating these products, the UK has extended its 'consultative' style, seeking to maintain the appearance of expert neutrality. To anticipate and incorporate potential dissent, the government adopted precautionary legislation and established a broadly-based advisory committee. Although the UK regulation is officially 'risk-based', in practice it involves a qualitative assessment of the acceptability and plausibility of potential effects. In this way, the risk debate has become scientized: some uncertainties are translated into technical criteria, while others are downplayed or deferred. These official judgements have been seriously challenged, especially at the commercial stage of herbicide-tolerant crops. Pressure groups hold regulators publicly accountable for controlling risks which the government had excluded from GMO regulation. In all those ways, the UK consultative style has come under strain. The regulatory procedure faces dilemmas- between setting narrow regulatory boundaries versus gaining legitimacy for products; between enabling commercial use versus extending precautionary controls; and between providing some public access versus limiting participation. These strains are illuminated here by two theoretical perspectives- 'reflexive scientization' and 'national regulatory styles'.

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