The Politics of Risk
The Politics of Risk

The Politics of Risk

Safe foods and technologies no longer reaching some markets

Risk is an odd thing in modern societies. Most of us prefer to avoid risk, yet we all do risky things every day. We drive, we smoke, we drink, we buy lotto tickets. So, why is it that our practices don’t match our preferences? The reason is that often the benefits outweigh the risks, such as with driving.

As individuals, we’re able to decide whether a single action is acceptable to us, or deemed to be too risky. Yet, have you ever wondered how decisions are made on whether a new food product or technology is acceptable or too risky? Such decisions are made by trained scientists that work for regulatory agencies of federal governments. To be able to assess the risk of a new product, scientists use proven methodologies to quantify the level of the risk and then compare this risk factor with the risk factors of existing products. If estimated risk and comparable exiting acceptable risk are close to being the same, then the new product is approved for safe use as it’s deemed to be no riskier than existing products that we are already consuming or using. If the risk of the new product is substantially higher, it could be rejected.

The determination of risk is not a complicated formula, it’s a combination of how dangerous the product could be and the amount of time we are exposed to it. For instance, x-rays, whether it’s for an arm, leg or teeth, is a form of radiation, which poses some risk. However, x-rays last only a second or two, by changing the length of time we are exposed to its radiation, it can also be used as a form of cancer treatment. Both are safe, but the impact on our bodies are substantially different, based on the length of exposure.

In some parts of the world, societies have become fixated on acceptable and safe risks, preferring to use politics to reject the scientific safety evidence. When it comes to genetically modified (GM) crops, Australia, Canada, Japan and the USA have all scientifically assessed the risks of GM crops and foods to be no different from the risks of producing or consuming conventional crops and foods. Europe has adopted a different approach. Europe’s scientists use the same methodologies as those that have approved GM crops and foods to assess the risk, determining the risks to be similar to existing crops and foods. However, the approval for production and consumption of these crops and foods is carried out by a committee of senior bureaucrats. The issue with bureaucrats making these decisions is that while they may mean well and good, first, they are not scientists, and so their understanding or perception of the results may not match the actually documented risk. Secondly, these committee members are required to follow government policy regarding GMOs, which is frequently based on political populism.  It’s well known that in the EU, consumers are not strongly in favour of GM crops or foods. The pressure from public campaigns against GM and calls for bans on crops and foods by environmental non-governmental organizations could very likely influence the campaign of politicians. This is where risk and politics clash, as the values of the voters can outweigh science.

So what does this all mean? What has resulted from the acceptance or rejection of GM crop and food scientific risk has cumulatively led to 220 million acres of GM crops across Australia, Canada and the USA in 2017. While in Europe, there are less than 500,000 acres of GM crops planted in Spain and Portugal. The US planted 49% of arable land with GM crops (assuming no double cropping), Canada 30% and Australia 2%. Portugal and Spain together plants 1% of arable land to GM crops (based on ISAAA and WorldBank data). With scientists in Australia, Europe and North America in agreement about the safety of GM crops, the anti-GMO in Europe is led by political decisions, not scientific. This makes the assessment of risk meaningless as products will only be commercialized depending on the political whims of government. This is a dangerous precedent to establish as it prevents safe, beneficial products and technologies from entering markets due to the political demands of fringe environmental organizations.

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