Tuesday, July 16, 2013

“Wait and See” vs. “Try and See”: the Transatlantic Debate Over GMOs

by Brent Rosenstein

When it comes to highly controversial, hot button issues in the transatlantic relationship, crops may not be the first topic that springs into one’s head. Nevertheless, the creation and sale of genetically modified crops, especially those intended for human consumption or animal feed, remains a major point of contention between the United States and the European Union. As Professor Gerhart Ryffel pointed out in a lecture he gave at the University of Illinois on April 24th, this stems largely from diverging cultural approaches to the issue.

When discussing this matter, Professor Ryffel said that Europeans, who, in general, remain staunchly opposed to the sale of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have adopted a “Wait and See” approach to modified crops. That is, they tend to prohibit the development and usage of GMOs unless it can be proved that they are entirely safe. The US, by contrast, has taken what Ryffel refers to as a “Try and See” approach, meaning that they tend to experiment with GMOs and see what happens. This is, in essence, a more colloquial way of describing the US’ position of “Sound Science” and the EU’s position of the “Precautionary Principle”.1 Assessing the cultural causes and implications of these labels could easily be a thesis or dissertation unto itself. However, one aspect of this dichotomy that does not seem to be addressed nearly as often is the question of whether these labels are really appropriate at all.

Some scholars have argued that the contrast between the “Precautionary Principle” and “Sound Science” has more or less become a stereotype that oversimplifies the true number of positions and the complexity of the issue.2 There is almost certainly something to this, as no groups can really be as homogenous as these are often portrayed as being. As a simple example, it has been noted that in the case of the EU, the European Commission tends to be in favor of opening the single market to GMOs, and it is the European public that provides the primary opposition.3 On the other hand, for a topic as large and controversial as GMOs, a certain degree of oversimplification is unfortunately necessary, otherwise it would be far too complex for reasonable public debate to be possible. Granted, a more nuanced and informed debate is always better, but the extent of this should be determined by the level of debate (i.e. public, academic, policy making, etc.)

In any case, there is one voice that often gets drowned out in these debates: the scientists actively conducting the research into the effects of genetically modifying organisms. As was pointed out in Professor Ryffel’s lecture, while scientific studies are often cited, by one side the other, the cited studies are at times heavily biased and/or of suspect credibility. It seems that for a scientific issue, the findings of the scientific community involved should have a larger impact than the politics of the matter.

Brent Rosenstein is a first year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) program at the University of Illinois. His research interests include international security efforts and human rights issues within the EU.



1Joseph Murphy, Les Levidow, and Susan Carr, “Regulatory Standards for Environmental Risks: Understanding the US-European Union Conflict over Genetically Modified Crops,” Social Studies of Science 36, no. 1 (February 1, 2006): 133. Ibid., 134.

2Ibid., 134.

3Paulette Kurzer and Alice Cooper, “Consumer Activism, EU Institutions and Global Markets: The Struggle over Biotech Foods,” Journal of Public Policy 27, no. 2 (May 1, 2007).

Photo: "Corn Field," Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corn_field.jpg

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