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Canadian agricultural biotechnology : risk assessment and the precautionary principle Barrett, Katherine J.

Abstract

Crops developed through recombinant DNA techniques (known as "genetically modified", "genetically engineered" or here, "rDNA crops") are currently grown on almost 3 million hectares in Canada and almost 30 million hectares world-wide. While proponents claim rDNA crops will increase yields and reduce chemical inputs, critics point to potential environmental hazards such as gene escape, increased weed problems, non-target effects and greater reliance on chemical-based agriculture. Since the early 1980s the Canadian government has actively promoted agricultural biotechnology both through specific biotechnology "strategies" and through broader financial incentives and research programs. This promotional effort sought to boost the national economy by creating an internationally competitive and innovative agricultural sector. By the late 1980s, pressure from government, industry and (to a lesser extent) the environmental community prompted Agriculture Canada to develop regulations for agricultural biotechnology that would simultaneously provide assurance of environmental safety while encouraging continued development of the industry. The resulting policy framework—"science-based risk assessment"—has subsequently been used to demonstrate that rDNA crops are "safe". However, data used in risk assessments are generated by crop developers and are not publicly available. Detailed evaluation of the risk assessment for herbicide tolerant canola (obtained through the Access to Information and Privacy Act) revealed significant shortcomings in the depth and breadth of questions, methods of inquiry, analysis of data, and plausibility of conclusions. I contend that closed policy-making procedures among like interests, and long-term prior commitments to agricultural biotechnology by government and industry has fostered a risk assessment framework based primarily on economic and technical considerations. While policies derive legitimacy from a proclaimed "scientific" basis, in practice, the risk assessment is too narrow to encompass the complexities of releasing rDNA crops into ecosystems or the marketplace. More specifically, value assumptions embedded in current risk assessment policies constitute a significant barrier to implementing the Precautionary Principle, a legal and ethical framework which emphasises anticipatory action, development of alternatives and recognition of uncertainty. Effective environmental protection will require a broader decision-making framework (including definitions of "sound science") and wider participation. One means to achieve this goal is to encourage and reward long-term, interdisciplinary and participatory research within academic institutions.

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