Tuesday, 12 March 2013

New commentary published on GM & public controversy

Picture from www.guardian.co.uk
Our commentary on the re-emergence of the public debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has recently been published here in the geography journal Area. The full title of the commentary is 'Boundaries, territory and public controversy: the GM debate re-materialised', and it's a very short article which can be downloaded by anyone with an institutional subscription to Area. It follows on broadly from the argument that Helen made in this post last May, on the protests related to GM wheat trials at Rothamsted Research. Instead of focusing on organisational learning, as the blog post did, we decided to focus on the materiality and spatiality of the GM debate and examine the multiple ways in which boundaries are being continually drawn and re-drawn.

We lay out what we think are four interesting and important boundaries being contested in the current GM debate. These are:
  1. The distinction between reason or rationality and unreason or irrationality
  2. The exclusion and even marginalisation of dissenting voices from the 'scientific' debate
  3. The boundaries between different spaces of public engagement which have different norms and registers
  4. And finally, the material territories of the laboratories and fields of these experimental crops, which were threatened with transgression last year by the Rothamsted protests.
We thought it was important to shift academic analysis of such controversies away from discussion of an abstract public debate at the national level to considering more deeply the material elements and multiple spaces of debate and contestation. What was also interesting to us is how these very different sorts of boundaries and spaces interact with and map onto each other; so the territory of Rothamsted's field of wheat crop in Hertfordshire came to symbolise, for a short time, the protected space some actors saw as necessary for science to function, out of reach of society's interference.

Peer review and the practicalities of academic publishing mean that the UK GM debate has moved on and changed slightly in form since we wrote this piece: had we written it last week it might have looked a bit different, though the broad argument and analysis would have been the same. More recent developments, such as Mark Lynas's recent speech at the Oxford Farming Conference and this interview that he  gave to the Guardian, serve to highlight the continuing importance and dynamism of the debate. Furthermore, such developments remind us of and the constant work and contestation which goes on to maintain and move these important boundaries.

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