Modeling Risk Frames for Genetically Modified Foods

by Morgan Beltz

The regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a constant battle of how to balance science with the consumers’ perception of risk. Scientists argue that there is no evidence to prove GM foods cause harm, but opponents reply there is no way to look at the potential future risks involved. Lisa Clark (2013) provides a solution to the governance framework by outlining three potential risk frames to use when regulating GMOs; 1) proof of harm, 2) precautious, and 3) precaution through experience. Currently, the regulation of GMOs and biotechnology is split between proof of harm and precautious risk frames, causing tensions between world governments and the correct way to govern the risks associated with GMOs. Clark concludes that individually the proof of harm and precautious risks frames are good, but focus on different aspects of the regulatory process. Bringing the two frames together to create a precaution through experience risk frame constructs the most solid foundation for a concise regulatory framework across different government bodies.

Clark discusses how the proof of harm risk frame endorses the prevention principle which is the idea of preventing the risk at the source rather than having to mitigate the risk after its effect. This means that in order for the GM food to be restricted there has to be science-based proof of harm. The proof of harm risk frame views science as the most important source of knowledge regarding the safety of GM food, but sometimes overlooks other factors. This risk frame does not necessarily look at consumer concern because it does not consider unknown risks, infinite risks, or risky techniques as reason to ban biotechnology. The proof of harm risk frame focuses on the quality of the food grounded in science-based evidence that there is no risk. This proposal also shows how organizations, such as the World Health Organization, are framing the issue of biotechnology with a science-based approach.

The precautious risk frame is perceived as the opposite to the proof of harm risk frame in how it is structured because it embraces the precautionary principal; erring on the side of caution. This frame is structured around preparing and regulating the future unknown risks by preferring to ban GM foods if there is not full scientific certainty that the product is safe. This gives a sense of transparency in the regulatory process by allowing all types of information to be considered, such as consumer prospective and feelings towards GMOs, not just scientific assessment. Clark discusses how transparency in the regulatory process consists of the labeling discussion and having consumer input from the beginning of the process until the food reaches grocery shelves. This way consumers have a say in what products are approved and what is allowed in their food. This risk frame is more concerned about the process of regulation rather than the end product.

Clark discusses the last risk frame as the more forward thinking because it blends both the proof of harm and precautious risk frames into one concise approach. This risk frame understands the complexity of the relationship between science and policy makers. In the regulatory process consumer concerns and scientific evidence have to be taken into consideration, but it can be difficult knowing what the correct balance is. The precaution through experience risk frame looks at both formal and informal decisions about what is the appropriate level of exposure to the risks of GM products. By reviewing formal and informal decisions it shows that science is not the basis for all decisions, but that consumer perception is important as well because consumers are the ones who will choose to buy the products. The precaution through experience risk frame looks at the entire system of approving GM foods by looking at the evidence, science and socio-economic concerns, and creating transparency between regulatory bodies and consumers.

Clark concludes by noting that the different risk frames have powerful influence over the regulatory process of biotechnology and it is important to integrate scientific and sociologic evidence in regulation. GM food is controversial from a policy standpoint so it is crucial to blend science and consumer views in order to make the correct decision when it comes to regulation. The precaution through experience risk frame is emerging on the governance scene, but is increasingly becoming the best substitute for straight science or straight socioeconomic views in the regulatory process. GM foods are the new up and coming technology that cannot be ignored for the future. Clark gives a reasonable solution for the governance issue with the precaution through experience risk frame to properly balance all views involved in the regulatory process.

Clark, L., 2013. Framing the uncertainty of risk: models of governance for genetically modified foods. Science and Public Policy 40, 467−478.

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