Stifling innovation: what can we learn from the heated reactions to GMOs in Europe?

Photo Bernard Chevassus-au-Louis / Inspector general of Agriculture, member of the French Academy of Technologies / April 14th, 2010

In today's era of plenty, many factors, including well-publicised health scares, lack of trust in risk control systems and a fear of new technology have resulted in a backlash against transgenic plants and their use in food in Europe. Attitudes to genetically modified organisms in medicine or even in agriculture in North America are different. However, the factors that contribute to this wariness in Europe should be examined because of their potential impact on innovations in all fields.

For over ten years, the cultivation of transgenic plants and their use in food have provoked various high-profile, controversial reactions, particularly in Europe. These include voluntary destruction of crops and crop trials, and a plethora of articles, both popular and scholarly, and political interventions that served to fuel rather than douse the debate. The divisions engendered by these controversies do not pit entire communities (of scientists, philosophers, political parties, agriculturists etc.) against each other but instead create schisms within these communities. This is not a conflict between “Science” and “Society,” or between the right and the left of the political spectrum.

These reactions could be considered specific to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, and we will discuss this first. However, they may also be indicative of a more generic attitude to innovation in a variety of technological fields, and as such raise red flags for the future.

GMOs, a local epiphenomenon?
Within the span a few decades in the twentieth century, Europe went from a situation where feeding populations was a difficult and uncertain task that consumed the major portion of our resources, to one where food is accessible even to the poorest.

This was initially characterized as the materialization of the ancient myth of cornucopia, but over the years this has gradually given way to a less positive response. Overabundance has often resulted in the destruction of food, often by the producers themselves.

This shift from scarcity to surplus, and its implications for societal values, has not been adequately examined. Scarcity is associated with a set of strong values. For example, for people who live in arid lands, water is often the focus of myths. Similarly, the traditional French attitude towards bread, a staple for so many, is one of respect and avoidance of waste, which reflects a consideration for those who produce it. Abundance, however, leads to indifference, and surpluses often generate ambivalent attitudes. What was considered a resource one day may can turn into a threat, as illustrated by peoples’ positive attitude towards watercourses during the drought in 1976 and their fear today of the dangers of flooding.

In other words, we have moved from a situation where food (and those who produced it) were strongly associated with positive feelings, to a situation where food, along with those who produce it, now constitute a potential threat that needs to be guarded against. In this context, any innovation that could further increase agricultural production, which would have been considered beneficial in the past, and which will still be considered beneficial in societies where this increase continues to be sought (viz. generally positive attitudes towards GMOs in India and China), will be viewed with hostility.

This “crisis of abundance” also corresponds to the emergence of various alternative agricultural practices (organic agriculture, small-scale farming, slow food, etc.) which have created deep fissures within the agricultural world, especially amongits unions and representatives. The rejection of GMOs thus appears, in part, to be a symbolic element used by these new agricultural systems to project their claims in a manner that captures media attention.
The health crises of the nineties (Mad Cow disease, contamination of milk products with Listerias, the presence of Dioxin in meats etc.) further exacerbated fears. These fortunately led to very few deaths, but they strongly shook the “zero risk” myth: public confidence in modern food systems and the ability of public authorities to correctly evaluate risks and control the different elements of the food chain. The slogan often heard during debates is that “GMOs are like Mad Cows”, does not mean that the public is ignorant of what GMOs “really” are. It expresses the fear that both issues will be treated in the same way: both instances are characterized by a lack of initial knowledge of the risks and poor traceability of the products, which, in the case of Mad Cows led to the emergence of a major health risk for humans.

The structural changes in the industry have also contributed to public fears, particularly the emergence of biotechnology, a new branch of science seen as outside traditional agricultural science. It is true that the supply of seeds to farmers has evolved greatly since the 1950s, but, for the large part the new specialist seed companies emerged from within the agricultural milieu, and were therefore culturally and socially “owned” by farmers. (In France we now have international competitors including Vilmorin, Limagrain, Clausse etc).. While these companies did introduce innovations from outside farming(for example, hybrid maize), their introduction into agriculture was a peaceful “acclimatization” because the companies were accepted by the agricultural community. The rise of biotechnology changed this. These new operators came mostly from outside of France and from different scientific backgrounds, namely chemistry and pharmacology.

In France, the emergence of patents to cover new seeds changed the legal framework for seed production and the way farmers use seeds themselves. In France this has formalized what had been in the past a more consensual and open system based on certificats d’obtention, COV (New Plant Variety Certificates). COVs allow farmers to re-sow seeds collected from their harvests and they allow other seed developers the right to use a commercial variety to develop a new strain without paying royalties to the first developer if they can prove they have made substantial improvements. Patents change all that. A farmer would be accused of breaking the law if he replanted patented seeds collected after harvest. Similarly, a seed developer would have to get authorization, and possibly pay royalties, if he or she improved on a variety patented by someone else and made it commercially available. Having identified these shifts in agriculture — namely overabundance, recent health risks, “foreign” science and the emergency of patents – do they explain the different reactions to innovations in GMOs in food and to GMOs in medicine?

Clearly there is barely any debate concerning the use of GMOs in the medical field, especially in the field of gene therapy, despite the fact that the methods for obtaining transgenic cells in both medical and plant sciences are similar. In addition, in France both types of transgenics are evaluated in the same way by commissions of experts. Yet medical gene therapy trialsare followed and encouraged. Any difficulties encountered during trials that could lead to criticism appear to reinforce the support and expectations of this “medical adventure”.

It is worth noting that none of the conditions that have changed agriculture are present in medical science: medical innovations still tend to come from within the community, patents have existed for decades and diseases remain to be cured. The notion of risk in developing cures is a given.

The second apparent paradox in the treatment of plant GMOs is the radical difference between their reception in Europe and North America which, despite some tensions and occasional disagreements, have similar economic, sociological, evaluation of procedures, and risk management perspectives. When we apply the above analytic framework to the North American-European divide, the result is worth further investigation.

First, increasing agricultural production and expanding into world markets remains a goal of Canadian and American agricultural policies, a position that is widely criticized in Europe. Innovations that contribute to this growth, including development of alternative agricultural models, are welcome. Second, the health risks that rocked Europe have not shaken the credibility of public institutions and Federal health security agencies (especially the Food and Drug Administration) in the United States in Canada.

Finally, North American multinationals are leaders in the development of GMO seedsand the use of patents was not a break from previous traditions since it was already in use in these countries to protect various plant varieties, specially the ornamental varieties.

It would seem then that the European response to GMOs in agriculture and food is specific to its own set of historical circumstances and that other sectors will not face similarly controversies. Unfortunately, this may not be the case. There are similarities in the controversies and responses to GMOs in the agriculture and food sectors that may crossover to technical innovations in other areas.

GMOs and the nature of risk
How the public at large evaluates risk is key to how people either accept or reject innovations. As scientific expertise developed over time and encompassed large data sets and standadised procedures (reference methods, accreditation etc.) the lay person stepped further and further away from the process. Science became a black box, if you will, which forced average citizens to rely on the expert authorities. The introduction of new foods, for example, presuppose the confidence of citizens in those who produce the product and the rigor of the technical quality control system that approves it. The twentieth century has thus given rise to an implicit “social contract”: there has been a progressive transfer of risk evaluation from the users themselves to an “expert” evaluation, based on the hypothesis that risks will consequently be better mastered by specialists.

This social contract, however, is often tested. The GMOs crisis is not the first shade the public’s faith the system. The debates around nuclear technology (in particular the controversies surrounding the Chernobyl cloud), asbestos, and contaminated blood have de facto led the public to withdraw their unquestioning support of the experts.

But on what basis does the non-expert make a risk evaluation and in what areas of society are likely to bring this into play? Risk sociologists have been studying this since the 1980s. Most situations occur when the general public does not have access to or cannot interpret sufficient quantitative data. People then approach these risks through various qualitative attributes, which will enable them to judge whether or not the risks are acceptable, at least for them and for those whom they are close to but not the population at large. These risk “attributes” include:
- The voluntary nature (I decide to expose myself), or the forced nature (somebody else exposes me) of the risk;
- Its known nature (I know when I am exposing myself or when I am being exposed), or its unknown nature;
- The immediate consequences (I rapidly perceive the possible effects), or the deferred consequences of the danger with the effects on future generations being an extreme case of deferred effects;
- The just nature (those who created it are those who are exposed to it), or the unjust nature of the risk;
- Its potential for catastrophe: the number of people affected by the risk (even if the number of people actually exposed is low) and whether it is reversible;
- The degree of uncertainty, estimated, for example, by the existence or otherwise of a controversy among experts, which makes it more difficult for the public to come to a decision.

Finally, there is always the cost-benefit analysis in all cases where the risk is not a zero probability event, and has a potential cost. This evaluation includes economic, cultural, and psychological aspects and can vary widely among individuals.

Clearly, using the above criteria, the introduction of GMOs into food and into the environment is a “bad risk “: it is forced, unknown, has potentially long term consequences, is unjust, uncertain, and which has huge potentialities for catastrophe (because potentially the whole population is concerned). In times of food security, it has no obvious advantage to compensate for it.

Whatever the quantitative evaluations of the risk that are supplied by experts, and however reassuring they may be (which in the case of GMOs they are not), they will have to contend with this labeling as a “bad risk”. We saw the same “bad risk” assessment, and media outcry, during the Mad Cow and Listerias crises. But the field of innovation affected by this non-expert analysis of risks is much wider than food. Phytosanitary products, nanotechnologies and mobile telephone antennas immediately come to mind.

This paradigm for understanding non-expert analysis can help explain the contradictions in responses to new technologies. Take mobile phones and transmission antennae. The former are accepted but the latter rejected, despite experts insisting that exposure to electromagnetic waves is much greater in the first case. If you come back to our grid, the potential risks associated with the use of mobile telephones are clearly “good” risks (voluntary, known, just, without any potential for catastrophe, and with an obvious perceived advantage), whereas the antennae are just the opposite. The same analysis could be carried out with phytosanitary products in gardens, in relation to the same products in intensive agriculture.

To refine and reinforce this analysis, lets look at another aspect of non-expert risk analysis: packaging. The sociologist Claude Fischler qualifies today’s new packaging products as UCOs (Unidentified Consumable Objects). Consumers are often presented opaque packaging with content description that are vague (“original,” “wild,” “new” or “irresistible”). Faced with such products, the traditional points of reference used since the dawn of time to gauge the freshness of fish or a slice of ham are powerless: we sideline sight, smell, taste and touch by wrapping everything in cardboard, plastic or metal.

Added to this is the awareness that modern day hazards are not readily detected by the senses. Pesticide residues, dioxin, listerias, and prions are invisible, colorless agents, with no taste or odor. Consumers are unwitting victims of what in French are known as the five “i”s: invisible, insipide, inodores, impalpable and inaudible and must look to their qualitatively risk analysis grid to seek reassurance. The company that successfully allays these fears, denounces risks and scandals (wrongly or rightly) will have an undeniable comparative advantage!

Clearly the development of innovations in numerous fields needs careful management. Perceptions of risks and cultural contexts shape responses to the new. One should not underestimate the task of tackling technological controversies. GMOs are just one example, radio waves and the national debate on nanotechnologies are two more.

The goal of this article is to convince the reader of the complexities of introducing innovations, rather than offer solutions. Future engineers, in particular, would do well to reflect on the potential impact of their work, in this light, as early as possible in the development cycle.


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  • Stifling innovation: what can we learn from the heated reactions to GMOs in Europe?on April 14th, 2010
  • ParisTech Review

    Very interesting article on GMO's issue

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