Open Access Review

From risk assessment to in-context trajectory evaluation - GMOs and their social implications

Vincenzo Pavone1*, Joanna Goven2 and Riccardo Guarino3

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Public Policies, CSIC - Consejo Superior Investigaciones Científicas, Calle Albasanz 6-28, Madrid, 28037, Spain

2 School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

3 Department of Botanic Sciences, Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Natural Sciences, University of Palermo, Palermo, Italy

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Environmental Sciences Europe 2011, 23:3  doi:10.1186/2190-4715-23-3

Published: 2 February 2011

Abstract

Background

Over the past 20 years, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have raised enormous expectations, passionate political controversies and an ongoing debate on how these technologies should be assessed. Current risk assessment procedures generally assess GMOs in terms of their potential risk of negatively affecting human health and the environment. Can this risk-benefit approach deliver a robust assessment of GMOs? In this paper, we question the validity of current risk assessment from both a social and an ecological perspective, and we elaborate an alternative approach, namely in-context trajectory evaluation. This paper combines frame analysis, context analysis and ecosocial analysis to three different case studies.

Results

Applying frame analysis to Syngenta's recent campaign 'Bring plant potential to life', we first de-construct the technosocial imaginaries driving GMOs innovation, showing how the latter endorses the technological fix of socioeconomic problems whilst reinforcing the neoliberal sociopolitical paradigm. Applying context analysis to biopharming in New Zealand, we then explore local practices and knowledge, showing that particularities of context typically omitted from risk assessment processes play a key role in determining both the risks and the potential benefits of a technology. Finally, drawing from the Italian case, we outline through ecosocial analysis how the lack of long-term studies, further aggravated by current methodological deficiencies, prevent risk assessment from considering not only how GMOs affect the environmental context but also, and most importantly, the way people live in, and interact with, this context.

Conclusion

Incorporating frame analysis, context analysis and ecosocial analysis, in the form of in-context trajectory evaluation, into the assessment of GMOs can improve the social compatibility, political accountability and ecological sustainability of its outcomes.