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Why the GM crops trade conflict needs a new approach to risk

11.09.2006
Whatever their stance, organisations like the World Trade Organisation, environmental campaign groups and government departments all claim to be examining the ‘risks’ of GM crops. But according to new research, the key to solving disputes such as the GM crops trade conflict is a new approach to understanding these issues, one that drops the use of the word ‘risk’ as a collective term.

The findings, which are the result of a 5 year study carried out at SPRU at the University of Sussex, will be presented at a conference in Brighton on Tuesday 12 September. Dr Adrian Ely, a Research Fellow at SPRU, will present his talk on ‘Typologies of incertitude as tools for policy analysis and policy making’ at SPRU’s 40th Anniversary conference on the Future of Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, which takes place next week from 11 to 13 September.

“A typology is just a way of understanding that things belong to different categories, and that we should distinguish between them,” says Ely. “When people talk about risks, they are usually talking about aspects of risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance. Instead, we use the word incertitude to describe this collection of things, so that we address them all.”

Ely explains that there are serious limits to using the idea of ‘risk’ to describe the potential problems associated with new developments in science and technology.

“Its all too easy to make the mistake of using quantitative risk assessment techniques to try to understand unknowns that are really uncertainties, when it is impossible for us to work out the probability that something will happen.”

The typology was developed by Prof. Andy Stirling, also of SPRU. Stirling, Ely and others are using it to explore various science and technology related issues.

"I use this typology to understand the government's decisions around GM crops and foods. Most policy problems - for example, climate change, GM crops or nanotechnology - involve a situation in which we don't have a full understanding of the science in question. It's important for us to appreciate what we know and what we don't know in order to prioritise research and/or public engagement,” says Ely. “That's where this typology can help."

The World Trade Organisation recently concluded that the EU had broken trade rules by failing to approve certain GM crops and foods produced in the USA. By considering the issues associated with risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance separately, he has been able to make sense of these events in a way that could be useful to policymakers internationally.

“There are so many complicated questions at play,” says Ely, “Using a tool such as this helps us to break them down into manageable parts. “The USA and Europe have assessed the risks from GM crops in different ways. This has led to divergent policies internationally, with bitter trade disputes as a result. This research can help us to understand the sources of the trade conflict and to move towards ways of resolving them."

Dr Jenny Gristock | alfa
Further information:
http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/spru/events/ocs/index.php

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