The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)
THE SOCIAL ACCEPTABILITY OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS
AND THE RESTRUCTURING OF THE AGROFOODSYSTEM:
ACTORS, CONFLICTS AND INTERESTS
Enrico Avitabile and Maria Fonte
Debate on the social acceptance of genetically modified organisms (gmo) and the social theory of risk seem to ignore the ongoing transformations in the food economy. On one hand, consumers behaviour is represented as emotional, in contrast to science and industry who behave rationally. On the other hand, food system is represented as homogeneous, rather than constituted by a multitude of economic and social actors who pursue their own specific interests.
Objective of this article is to locate the theme of GMO-food safety in the context of agrofood system transformations, where, as also in the whole late-modern society (Giddens 1991, Beck 1999) risk constitutes a fundamental element.
Our hypothesis is that the rationality of consumers behaviour in their reaction to food, containing GMO or that is obtained through processes that utilise GMO, can not be comprehended without considering:
1. the behaviour of consumers in relation to food in general, and specifically with respect to its symbolic value;
2. the ongoing transformations in the agrofood system.
These themes are dealt with in the paper. After shortly recalling some of the arguments in the literature on the social acceptability of GMOs, we analyse how food consumption models have changed in the industrial and post-industrial society. In the 1980s, the economists of globalisation have often spoken of homogenisation and convergence of consumption styles. On the contrary, in the most recent years, same sociologists have underlined phenomena of fragmentation on the food demand. To this fragmentation the supply side responds with a re-organisation of the production system, that puts the processes of vertical integration, activated in the previous years by the transformation industry, in a different light. New actors, first of all the retailing industry, bring in specific rationales and economic interests, that inevitably multiply the co-ordinations mechanisms of the economic activity. In the interpretation of these changes, in the demand and supply, an important role is played by the irruption of risk, in the late-modern form of manufactured risk (Giddens 1999), i.e. provoked by the human manipulation of food. Risk increases uncertainty in the environment in which consumers and producers must make their choices, without being able to take into account the consequences of their actions.
Controversies on the GMOs are utilised in this article as a case-study that allows to identify the multitude of actors playing a role in the ongoing transformations of the agrofood system. The economic interests and arguments by which they defend their own interests and values are analysed at the light of the economic theory of conventions and the different worlds of justification to which their messages and discourses refer themselves.
Table 1. Subjects, arguments and justification orders in the GMOs controversies.
World of reference
Possibility of health control for animal production (vaccines, antibiotics, etc.)
Social benefits (yields increases)
Less environmental impacts
Cost reduction /
production risk control
Relations with the territory
Contractual power in the agrofood system
Consumers right to choose
Contractual power in the agrofood system
Right to bed informed
Trust in food
Impact on national agriculture
Impact on the biotech industry
As it is clear from the scheme, the civic convention is the most universal, i.e. commonly accepted by all the actors. Though, it articulate itself with different world and in this articulation it acquires a specific role and weight. It is likely that, on the base of the civic convention of food safety for the consumers, the animals and plants, the new social compromise about GMO will be elaborated within a new system of regulation. Regulation is the new privileged field of confrontation for all the actors in the agrofood system, who try to influence and determine for their own sake markets rules and standards.