Substituting a fictional ‘science’ for public accountability: legitimacy problems of the EU’s regulatory framework for GM products

Levidow, L. (2017). Substituting a fictional ‘science’ for public accountability: legitimacy problems of the EU’s regulatory framework for GM products. In: Escajedo San-Epifanio, L. ed. Towards a new regulatory framework for GM crops in the European Union: Scientific, ethical, social and legal issues and the challenges ahead. Wageningen Academic Publishers, pp. 155–166.



Given the EU’s continuing conflicts around GM products, how to diagnose the policy problem? Many key actors and commentators have seen the EU’s regulatory framework as a failure – but in what sense? Such a judgement has many possible criteria for success – e.g. decisions by the EU regulatory committee to authorise GM products, or clear decisions (qualified majority for or against authorisation) in the EU Council, or public transparency of risk-assessment assumptions, or democratic accountability for agbiotech’s contribution to specific agri-development trajectories, or a broader public legitimacy for such societal choices. Those criteria may not be mutually compatible in practice. There is little agreement on what would count as success, much less how to achieve it. Any legislative ‘fix’ remains elusive. This article analyses the conflict by addressing different questions: What are the basic assumptions of the EU’s risk-regulatory regime? How do these generate and structure conflicts over GM products (henceforth agbiotech)? Why did regulatory issues become so contentious? What political interests are at stake? To answer those questions, this article draws on several research projects from 1989-2004 (see Acknowledgements) and a follow-up in subsequent years; the earlier findings can illuminate more recent conflicts. As argued here, the EU’s promotional policy for agbiotech has sought legitimacy through a ‘science-based’ agro-food safety regime, as originally formulated by DG-SANCO, yet expert advice has implicitly incorporated policy commitments favourable to agbiotech. A fictional policy-free ‘science’ has been substituted for public accountability regarding how GM products are assessed and how they shape the EU’s agro-food future. Moreover, agbiotech has been closely bound up with neoliberal agendas. Regardless of legislative changes, therefore, the EU’s legitimacy problems around agbiotech will continue.

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