Guest Post by Kelly Bronson
On November 24, 2015, 10 “experts” from around the world gathered to inform a vision for the Norwegian governance of agricultural biotechnologies under the rubric of responsible innovation. Among the attendees were Drs. Brian Wynne (Lancaster, retired) and Sir Erik Millstone (Sussex). The workshop was funded by the Research Council of Norway and was held in Tromso—an arctic environment described by craggy mountains and dark mid-day skies.
Within a responsible innovation approach, the stewardship of innovation includes what is called “upstream” reflection on the purposes of innovation. Said differently, responsible innovation is shaped according to early consideration about what the technology is intended to do (not only what it is hoped it will not do): What are the motivations behind the innovation? Who might benefit and who not? As you can see, responsible innovation is necessarily forward-looking; it aims not just to regulate “end products,” and thus hazards that appear after the introduction of innovations. Responsible innovation emphasizes the need for care and responsiveness among scientists and decision-makers (like regulators).
At the workshop we discussed how to execute a responsible innovation framework for agricultural biotechnology governance in Europe; Norway is in the midst of applying biotechnology to the aquaculture sector. Those of us from outside of Europe also discussed how responsible innovation might be applied to agricultural biotechnology governance in North America. Unfortunately, Canada missed the boat on inclusive reflection and public deliberation over the motivations behind the development of those agricultural biotechnologies, which have existed in our food system for several decades. The purpose behind innovations like RoundupReady canola was and still is quite simple: boost farm-level productivity and contribute to a competitive biotechnology industry and economically robust agri-food sector. But what if the goal driving investments in innovation in the later 20th century had been deliberated upon by a wide variety of farmers and other stakeholders? What if alternative goals—say, environmental sustainability, local community sustainability—had surfaced over productivist ones?
Arguably, pretty serious losses have resulted from a lack of institutionally embedded deliberation on agricultural governance goals, and not just environmental and social ones. In 2005, Monsanto was forced to shelve its RoundupReady wheat because they made assumptions of need for the technology among reduced-tillage farmers, who ultimately became RoundupReady wheat’s worst critics and prevented its swift regulatory approval.
There are other ways, however, in which the responsible innovation framework could still be applied in Canada. For instance, we could adopt a precautionary approach to risk assessment (like in Europe) instead of our current backward-facing strategy that focuses on the end products of biotechnology innovation and on impacts, as they arise. Responsible innovation is, after all, about creating a responsive or flexible governance system that leaves space open for alternatives. I remain open to an alternative agri-food future.
Dr. Kelly Bronson is the Acting Director of the Science and Technology Studies program at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB.