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Bioscience Issues

Prof Phil Macnaughten, Dr Susana Carro-Ripalda

Understanding the social, cultural and religious factors that shape the acceptance, use and resistance to GM crops: a comparative approach

Prof Phil Macnaughton, Dr Susana Carro-Ripalda

University of Durham

Although the growth of GM crops has been dramatic, its uptake has not been the smooth transition predicted by its advocates. Our strategic question is: unless we examine why GM crops have not been universally accepted as a public good, we will fail to understand the conditions under which ‘GM crops can help to feed the world’. To answer this question we are undertaking a programme of fieldwork within and across three ‘rising powers’: India, Mexico and Brazil. The aim of the project is: (1) to add to academic scholarship on the comparative politics of GM, the role of culture and religion, and governance; (2) to assist in the production of a more reflexive policy culture in which actors better understand the complexity of GM framings and the need for culturally-sensitive regulatory and technology assessment; and (3) to build capacity among local stakeholders and in partner institutions. Our long-term vision is to develop a model of social science that engages with and contributes to policy and scientific debates on GM technology assessment and appraisal.

This international project is being carried out by a multi-disciplinary team of experts at Durham University, which includes sociologists, anthropologists, plant biologists, geographers, political scientists, physicists and religious studies scholars. The research activities for the case studies are implemented by local teams at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (Brazil) and Jawlharlal Nehru University (India). The three case studies include a whole programme of activities which has been designed by the Executive Team at Durham and which are being replicated by our partners in the three locations for full comparability. Research activities include: structured interviews with key stakeholders; questionnaires; focus groups with urban consumers; ethongraphic fieldwork in rural communities; and deliberative methodologies in national workshops. The study will conclude with  an International Policy Summit in London.

Our specific research questions are:
• How can we identify, interpret, position, and compare the perspectives of relevant actors who have a stake at GM crop development, implementation and governance in three distinct local national contexts, particularly the hidden or excluded ones?

• What are the cultural and ontological (spiritual and religious) resources which are deeply embedded in both pro- and anti- GM arguments and positions in the three local contexts, and how do these help frame the issue in public debates?

• How can new forms and spaces of dialogue be created within which a diversity of hitherto excluded voices can be heard and taken into account within GM debates in each of the three local contexts, and how can both scientific and non-scientific perspectives be fairly weighed and considered within GM deliberations?

• What institutional conditions are necessary for a truly democratic and fair process of deliberation to happen between all relevant actors, which allow for the inclusion of cultural and ontological (spiritual and religious) sensitivities and from which broader and more humanistic forms of GM governance can emerge?

These questions are guided by the following principles:
• We cannot understand the conflict surrounding the development, implementation and governance of GM technologies – hence their potential to ‘feed the world’ – unless we understand the dynamics of debates surrounding GM crops and food, the socio-cultural, spiritual and religious substrata underlying divergent arguments, and the terms within which those debates are enabled to take place.

• We cannot capture the dynamics, substance and terms of the GM debate unless we talk to a variety of included and excluded actors in diverse positions, observe their dialogues and practices in situ, and interpret them in their broader socio-political and economic context.

• We cannot understand the universal and context-specific fundamentals of GM debates unless we carry out a cross-cultural comparison of case studies in geographical places where GM debates are relevant and important.

• We cannot explain the adoption and advance of GM technologies exclusively on grounds of economic and scientific rationales, which are never value-neutral and therefore need to submit their assumptions and evidences to processes of deliberation of ends and means, in which cultural and religious perspectives are relevant.

Progress to date
We have concluded most of the research activities in Mexico, including a National Workshop we held with key stakeholders in Mexico City, and which generated a great deal of press interest. Preliminary results from this case study indicate a great appetite on the part of stakeholders to reopen the public debate regarding GMO maize in Mexico, but with different structural and institutional conditions, and with a greater scope of actors. Brazil has also concluded most research activities, and their National Workshop took place in Florianópolis on 24th May 2013. This workshop made it evident that the Brazilian GM debate is far from closed, and that there is a public demand for more information and consultation about GM regulation and product commercialisation. A preliminary analysis is being carried out in both Brazil and Mexico. Research activities are ongoing in India.

We have presented preliminary results in a variety of fori (UNAM, Mexico; UPV, Spain; C

ONSEA, Brazil) which have been extremely well received.

Our strategic promise is to develop a deliberative methodology, condensed into a toolkit, in which the views and values of an inclusive set of stakeholders (including publics and farmers) can inform and shape the conditions under which GM crops, and other plant science innovations, can be developed responsibly to contribute to global food security and social justice.