Social Philosophy Today


published on April 22, 2014

Neil Hibbert, Lisa F. Clark

Democratic Legitimacy, Risk Governance, and GM Food

The use of Genetic Modification (GM) in food is the subject of deep political disagreement. Much of the disagreement involves different perceptions of the kinds of risks posed by pursuing GM food, and how these are to be tolerated and regulated. As a result, a primary institutional site of GM food politics is regulatory agencies tasked with risk assessment and regulation. Locating GM food politics in administrative areas of governance regimes produces unique challenges of democratic legitimacy, conventionally secured through legislative channels. In particular, debate over the ends of a society’s policy on GM food inevitably continues in these institutional locations, despite conventional instrumental understandings of administrative legitimacy resting on effective application of ‘ends-means’ norms. This paper assesses the two major regulatory frameworks currently applied to GM food—the ‘precautious’ (associated with European jurisdictions) and ‘proof of harm’ (associated with North American jurisdictions) approaches—and presents their respective limits in securing the procedural and substantive dimensions of the legitimacy of administrative deference in democratic societies. On the basis of these criticisms, a synthesized and emergent approach—‘experiential precaution’—is presented as having the resources to deepen the legitimacy of risk governance institutions in the case of GM food. It is characterized by deepened participatory practices of negotiated rulemaking and inclusion of further substantive requirements in approval criteria.

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