Genetically Modified Boundaries

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Mahony

When prominent environmentalist Mark Lynas recently announced that he no longer opposes the genetic modification of agricultural crops, a decades-long debate about the risks, benefits, uncertainties and politics of biotechnology returned to our news stands. Lynas’ speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January made the news worldwide, as the former guerilla activist of the anti-GM movement announced his regret at the harm done to technological progress by the protests of his one-time colleagues.

Researchers in geography and science and technology studies (STS) are united by, amongst other things, their interest in boundaries. In a recently-published commentary in Area, Helen Pallett and I seek to explore this disciplinary confluence to try and make sense of the recent evolution of the GM debate. We were inspired to the task by last year’s protests around a field of experimental wheat at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. We drew attention to what we see as four interesting (and overlapping) boundary issues in the GM debate:

  • The distinctions made between reason or rationality and unreason or irrationality;
  • the inclusion or exclusion of certain voices from a debate often cast as being solely about science;
  • the boundaries between different spaces of public engagement which may have different norms and styles of debate; and
  • the material territories of the laboratories and fields of 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 consider 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 wheat field 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.

We could equally have written a piece like this in response to the Lynas story – reflecting for example on the ways rhetorical boundaries were drawn between cool-headed scientific rationality and emotive, irrational protest. Lynas’ interview in the Guardian could itself be read as an insight into the constellation of powers which constitute contemporary modes of environmental governance.  Science, the state, private corporations, social movements, high-profile media figures – all of these actors make an appearance in Lynas’ story, as we hear how one individual has navigated the contested boundaries which separate them from one another. All four elements of our sketchy typology of boundary issues likewise make an appearance in the media coverage of Lynas’ conversion. Real-world events like these provide occasions for geographers to engage with other disciplines and academic traditions like STS and environmental sociology, which have their own analytic tools for making sense of boundaries, whether material, rhetorical, or both. In research on complex issues like GM, disciplinary boundaries too can be subject to some rethinking.

books_icon Martin Mahony and Helen Pallett, 2013, Boundaries, Territory and Public Controversy: The GM debate Re-materialisedArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12014

globe42

 Martin Lynas: Truth, treachery and GM foodThe Guardian

globe42 Anti-GM activists urged not to trash wheat fieldThe Guardian

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