Contested rationality: early regulation of GMO releases in Britain

Levidow, Les (1995). Contested rationality: early regulation of GMO releases in Britain. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis analyses the development of safety regulation for the intentional release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) between 19 89-92, especially in Britain in its European context, and by contrast to the USA. The thesis emphasizes the practical dilemmas of GMO regulation in accommodating uncertainties about public unease and environmental harm. It serves as a case study of safety regulation as a constructed rationality, of national regulatory styles, and of environmental precaution.

In anticipating hazards prior to evidence of harm, GMO regulation had a contested 'rational' basis. Regulators encountered disputes in defining the risk problem, in establishing risk-management institutions, and in reducing scientific uncertainty about potential harm. Insofar as GMO regulation had a precautionary content, it undermined the 'rational' stereotype of risk-assessment steps.

Both the precautionary potential and its limits derived from the project of overcoming obstacles to a biotechnology market. This meant symbolically normalizing GMOs as benign products, while specifying testable ecological uncertainties rooted in some naturalistic analogy. Technical 'risk' abstracted potential harm from issues of socioagronomic control which underlay the earlier environmental controversy.

The thesis argues for recasting theoretical models of safety regulation as a 'technical' or 'procedural' rationality. GMO regulation contained poles of tension which such theoretical models attribute to antagonistic rationalities. Broadly speaking, the regulatory system was managing an internal contradiction between social legitimacy and commercialization. The difficulties of GMO regulation arose from its implicit role in legitimizing biotechnology, by default of any democratic procedure for adjudicating a contentious technoscientific development.

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