Viewpoint: How postmodernism birthed Europe’s anti-GMO movement

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Tounderstand why Europe is restricting the use of some technologies, while the United States are not following the same path for the same technologies, plant biotechnology is a useful example. Obviously, Europe is center of origin of the GMO backlash. A short-term reason can be sought in its Directive from 1990, which has created a judicial object called a “genetically modified organism.” It was replaced by a new Directive in 2001 but kept its meaningless definition of a GMO (Tagliabue, 2016a). This regulatory approach focuses on an “organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally,” giving the impression that GMOs are intrinsically different and risky, and consequently created the possibility of rejection of transgenesis, a promising technology, by distrustful consumers in the wake of the “mad cow” crisis.

The July 2018 judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) (“Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive”1) was a new blow for biotechnologists. However, the question that emerges is: Why did all these events happen in Europe? To understand we need to characterize the ideological context, and to do so to look at a broader historical perspective.

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European Court of Justice. Credit: Geoff Pugh/Telegraph

During the last century, Europe suffered from two devastating World Wars, the mass crimes of two totalitarian states and the inhumane nature of their concentration camps, and several genocides. In a legitimate attempt to avoid repetition of such tragic events, European integration was postulated.

However, it was not only based on “sharing of its common inheritance” as originally thought. Since Nation-States were considered to be warmongers, a new way of thinking considered that what is needed is to go beyond traditional allegiance to Nation-States, at the benefit of supra-national structures (such as an increasingly federalist and expanding EU) or infra-national ones (such as what was later called “non-governmental organizations,” NGOs).

Furthermore, Europe started to look critically at other aspects of its history (its colonial enterprises, the status of minorities, etc.). What progressively developed was a new ideology which can be termed “postmodernism” (this term is useful since it highlights a shift from “modernism,” as explained below). It is based on the assumption that questioning the inheritance (rather than sharing it) is necessary to avoid the tragedies of the past. This view gained a strong moral influence, especially in conjunction with social and political upheavals in the Western world from the 1960s onwards. It also found philosophical support: postmodern philosophy considers that Western intellectual and cultural values (the heritage of the Enlightenment) have to be “deconstructed” (for more details see footnote 2 and also the Kuntz, 2020).

There is another important shift to be taken into account. It can be illustrated by, for example, the fact that Churchill spoke about an “act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past” (Churchill, 1946). However, here also, this is not what actually occurred. Instead of oblivion, what developed can be called the “Western Guilt” (Bruckner, 2010). It slowly but surely permeated the values and powers that rule the EU, and to quote the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner:

Having scaled unprecedented peaks of barbarity, the Europe of Brussels has decided to redeem itself by privileging moral values over realpolitik. […] It [modern Europe] has convinced itself that, since all the evils of the twentieth century arose from its feverish bellicosity, it’s about time it redeemed itself and sought something like a reawakened sense of the sacred in its guilty conscience (Bruckner, 2019).

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Credit: Population Connection

Although science and technologies have made a huge contribution to mankind, accidents (such as the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal), careless use of chemicals (such as pesticides), failure in risk assessments (such as the thalidomide case) and morally reprehensible events also occurred. Many consider that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has led to a major change in the way we look at science and has fueled critical views of technology in the postmodern era. The dawn of this era can be set in 1962, when Rachel Carson published her anti-pesticide book Silent Spring, although the same decade was still characterized by a peak of admiration of technology during NASA’s Apollo program.

Here also, to avoid repetition of deleterious events caused by technology, more “Big Principles” were invented: the Precautionary Principle in Europe (see Supplementary Material) and participation of “civil society” in the whole Western world. The latter actually contains two postmodern concepts in a single principle. One is the re-invention of “civil society” (Powell, 2013; Ehrenberg, 2017), also called “stakeholders.” Cicero already spoke about a “societas civilis,” but here it is a different concept, developed from the 1980s: i.e., the rising importance of a supposed direct (participative) democracy, as opposed to representative democracy especially at the level of Nation-States, which as mentioned above, were considered as potential warmongers or at the service of the industrial and financial oligarchy. In the postmodern sense, direct democracy is not limited to local democracy (the latter is often useful).

Transposed to science, it gave rise to the concept of the “democratization of science.” In conjunction with the second concept, “participation,” it has profound implications for science, since it means that scientific processes (such as risk assessment) cannot rely solely on experts, but will benefit from the involvement of “stakeholders” (Kuntz, 2016). Collaboration between medics and patients is often put forward as a successful example of “participatory science.” Although it may be true, this represents a case where no political forces are at work and where all parties want “more science” rather than one party promoting “another science” [see discussion in Kuntz (2012, 2016)].

The report in 2016 by the National Academies of Sciences (United States) entitled “Gene Drive on the Horizon,” although scientifically excellent, illustrates such an ideological shift (led by postmodern sociologists and ethicists on the Committee): it is no longer the society, in its own interest, which should listen to science, but science which should align with “public values” (Kuntz, 2016). Significantly, the subtitle of this report is “Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values.” The term “research” is ambiguous here. It can mean research funding, which is a legitimate political choice and of course will be influenced by “values” (but the ambiguity of the latter term has still to be recognized). It can also be understood as the way science is performed (i.e., the scientific method) and this is problematic: “public values” drastically change according to civilizations and even over time in a given location, which is incompatible with the universalist scientific method.

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These views ignore that science is not a matter of democracy, and that this “democracy” is at risk of being captured by the most organized political activists. Of course, scientists can participate in the democratic debate by explaining to a larger public what they know and what they do not know. Here also, these new “Big Principles” went too far: the Precautionary Principle (see Supplementary Material) or, rather, its misuses (Tagliabue, 2016b), encouraged non-science-based regulations and even bans, such as those on GMOs; the participation of “civil society” led to a “soft power” of NGOs.

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The latter concept has been discussed by many authors and can concern many issues and have positive effects [e.g., diplomacy, human rights, promoting responsible business practice and of course environmental matters; see Katsuji and Kaori (2008); Chambers (2012)]. However, it can also have negative effects such as African governments importing dysfunctional biosafety regulations under the influence of European NGOs amongst others [see Paarlberg (2009) and also below the Golden Rice case]. In addition, in contradiction with the proclaimed goals, these NGOs have no democratic legitimacy.

As the GMO case has shown in many countries, this context has favored the radicalization of activists, rather than the opposite, and has contributed to the dilution of established scientific facts. Both have negatively influenced political actions on GMOs. The famous Séralini affair has illustrated how an activist “science” has attracted huge media attention and political over-reaction (Kuntz, 2019).

Postmodernism has also contributed to transforming another pillar of Modernism, namely Judicial Independence, into an increasing “Government of Judges” or “Government by Judiciary” (i.e., a shift in power from politicians to judges). This became possible since, to avoid past abuse of power by dictatorial governments, it was considered necessary to reinforce the concept of Rule of Law (or State of Law), that is to increase the Judicial Discretion concept into a preeminence of, for example, High Courts of Justice over governments (i.e., over democratically elected ones, since authoritarian governments will impose a complete subjection of judges anyway…). The judge, usually ignorant of scientific complexities, will listen to experts from all sides, judging their expressions equivalently and will rule accordingly through “Big Principles” such as the Precautionary Principle.

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Image Credit: Engineering and Technology

In summary, regarding the issue of technological risks, the consequences of both postmodern democratism and the weakening of elected governments means that politicians will decide in confusion (often catering to NGO lobbying or what they think is the general opinion of their citizens through polls) or may simply obey judges.

What Differentiates Europe From the United States?

Postmodernism is also rampant in the United States and is expressed for example as “political-correctness,” which has even been described as “The Closing of the American Mind” by the philosopher Allan Bloom (1987). The power of judges also exists. Fears about GMOs have also been propagated by activists in the United States, eventually leading to Public Law 114–216 on GMO labeling, but only in 2016 (i.e., 15 years later than in the EU) and with only minimal labeling requirements. In addition, the Federal government established a formal biotech policy in 1986, the “Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology,” which has been since updated.

However, it remains a set of principles based on existing laws, not a law in itself. Although the regulations enacted under the Coordinated Framework have limited the deployment of biotech crops to some extent, particularly disease-resistant crops, obviously the United States has not enacted inhibiting laws as did the EU.

So why did we observe a “closing of the mind” in relation to plant biotechnology by European political authorities and not by those in the United States? One of the downstream explanatory factors is that the US regulatory system favors the use of expertise, not popular opinion. In other words, its postmodernism differs from the European one. Obviously, the US authorities consider their national interest and hence those of their industries.

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As a comparison, European countries lost this ambition and the EU was not created on might (actually as explained above, it was consciously aimed at basing its policies on values). Actually, the EU itself has none of the classical markers of power (army, permanent seat at the UN Security Council, etc.), not even symbolic ones, which were always inseparable from might since the Ancient World. “Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws,” as Confucius said. Since might appears to be the universal ambition of large political entities since the Ancient World, it is even more striking that Europe has lost such an ambition.

Conclusion and Perspectives

For decades, using rational arguments, scientists tried to convince European politicians of the importance of biotechnology including, more recently, gene editing. Despite the fact that many observers and even politicians are aware that Europe is trailing far behind the United States and now also behind China on plant biotechnology, the trend cannot easily be reverted. Europe’s position is enshrined in an ideology that, like all ideologies, draws an outside line between good and evil: decked out with its “Big Principles,” Europe is convinced it is on the side of great virtue.

In this context, it is difficult to change this ideology, and it was illusory to hope that gene editing products would not be considered as GMOs. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the EU will react appropriately to the risk of becoming a vassal of China and the United States on these new biotechnologies (Martin-Laffon et al., 2019). Unless EU scientists can invoke other “Big Principles” of superior virtue…

Interestingly, the reliance on scientists (virologists, epidemiologists and other specialists) to steer the COVID-19 pandemic marks the return of scientific reality and knowledge with respect to postmodern constructivism, cognitive relativism and stakeholder engagement, etc. However, it is premature to conclude from this observation that the postmodern ideology will decline.

Marcel Kuntz is a research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Grenoble, France. This article is adapted from an essay published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. Find Marcel on Twitter @marcel_kuntz

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