Plant biotechnologies: are we ready for the enlightenment?

This week the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report of its inquiry into GM foods and the precautionary principle in Europe. The title for the report, noticeably taking its own advice and avoiding the two fatally contested terms ‘GM’ and ‘precautionary principle’, is: Advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement: regulation, risk and precaution.

What I see as the key finding of the report, which leads on to what I see as a key recommendation, is the need to take seriously how framing debates about plant technologies as particular kinds of question, that belong to particular knowledge formations and expertises, distorts and prejudices their treatment in a way that has manifestly defied satisfactory resolution. This finding is not new, of course, but the critical reflection it enjoins is lamentably absent from the cut and thrust of current public debate. The question is: are we ready for a more mature reflection?

If this conclusion is to be taken seriously, a number of things follow. The critical turn of ‘thinking about how we think about’ plant technologies, and the exposure of the partiality of our framings, is attended by the sobering realisation that we nevertheless have to find some way of framing our response to them – we cannot simply think about plant technologies without any frame of reference. And along with this comes the vertiginous realisation that there may be no self-evidently ‘right’ way of doing this. We must go to work in the territory of meaning and value, not withdraw to that of fact and demonstration.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.