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Alongside other factors, cultural values and identities help to explain different regulatory frameworks for genetically modified organisms. This book uses insights from environmental history and sociology to illuminate the cultural politics of regulation in the US and the EU, with particular attention to public opinion and anti-GMO activism.




In the autumn of 2006, a long-awaited verdict of the Dispute Panel at the World Trade Organization (WTO) was published. It concerned the divergent regulatory treatment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products thereof by the US and the EU. According to some analysts, the ruling constituted a resounding victory for the US and its allies because it found against the Europeans on all major issues and condemned their failure to conform to the 1995 WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. The Panel criticised the EU’s undue delay in approving genetically modified (GM) varieties (for import or cultivation) and the proliferation of national safeguard measures based on inadequate scientific risk assessments. Commentators also noted, however, that the Panel steered clear of the most controversial areas — such as the question of physical safety and the legality of labelling requirements — by focusing on procedural aspects and producing a relatively narrow legal opinion (Cheyne 2008). In many ways, the outcome thus mirrored a similar ruling in 1998 against the EU with regard to its ban on the use of beef hormones (rBST).

Hannes R. Stephan

1. Overview of Regulatory Frameworks and Public Opinion

This chapter lays the groundwork for a cultural-political analysis. The regulatory pathways described here seem to confirm the assumptions of historical path dependency in which initial political decisions decisively shape the interests of rational economic actors and structure the field of political possibilities (Pollack and Shaffer 2009). Such accounts are plausible, but they tend to underestimate other factors influencing the regulatory trajectory, especially the role of public opinion and of bureaucratic politics. In Europe, the latter shaped the early framing of biotechnology as an environmental question — to be supervised by the EU’s Environment Directorate-General (Patterson 2000). My main focus, however, is squarely on the public mood and the amount of political leeway it offers, particularly once public opinion became subject to regular surveys in the 1990s. While, in the EU, bureaucratic politics, industrial policy priorities, and major economic interests were drifting towards a US-style regulatory framework by the mid-1990s, this developmental path was thwarted by the anti-GMO mobilisation of citizens and consumers. The precautionary logic of the initial framework from 1990 has been preserved, even if greater centralisation at the European level implied a possible mechanism for modest regulatory softening and more technocratic policy-making.

Hannes R. Stephan

2. Perspectives on Regulatory Divergence

The observation that public attitudes towards agbiotech are relatively well correlated with regulatory outcomes does not yet establish the primary relevance of public opinion. Hence, this chapter seeks to review and learn from existing explanations of transatlantic regulatory divergence. There are many strands of regulatory studies, but scholars exploring the politics of agbiotech often employ pluralist and institutionalist perspectives on political science. The former are dominated by politicaleconomic analyses. Within the latter camp, three variants of ‘new’ institutionalism — rational-choice, sociological, and historical — are of particular relevance for the study of agbiotech policy-making.

Hannes R. Stephan

3. Theorising Culture and Nature

Having identified public opinion and ethical or moral concerns about agbiotech as important elements for explaining transatlantic regulatory divergence, it is now time to develop the broader cultural-political approach. Cultural factors constitute the explanatory core of this book, while history serves as an analytical method to demonstrate the persistent relevance of cultural values and identities. This task is complicated by the fact that the concept of culture is one of the most contested terrains in the social sciences. Raymond Williams (1976: 87) famously judged that ‘[c]ulture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’, although, for many decades, disciplines such as history or sociology have put the concept to good use. In political science, however, culture has remained an under-theorised subject (Reeves 2004). This neglect of cultural analysis might well have ended with the controversial ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis by Samuel Huntington (1996). Yet, perhaps this flurry of interest does not constitute a genuine break with the past. As Kratochwil (1996: 203) notes, ‘[f]ar from representing a mere personal preference […], questions of culture and identity have always been part and parcel of our analysis of the social world.’ He diagnoses a degree of ‘amnesia’ in recent times which has prevented a more widespread use of cultural concepts.

Hannes R. Stephan

4. Cultural Politics and Resistance to GMOs

In the previous chapter, I proposed a cultural approach and outlined how it could be partially reconciled with the study of politics. Important cultural elements, such as moral judgements and deeply embedded attitudes towards ‘nature’, could thus be joined by more observable political dynamics, namely the activities of interest groups, the impact of the media, and the dynamics of political systems and bureaucracies. To varying degrees, these are examined in this chapter. However, these factors cannot be understood outside a broader context which has deep historical roots and is constituted by pre-existing cultural dispositions. Thus, I explore the cultural politics of agbiotech on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hannes R. Stephan

5. Environmental History: Nature, Landscapes, and Identities

An analysis of the contemporary politics of agbiotech is enhanced by taking account of the cultural context — that is, pre-existing, historically constituted values and identities. Following the approach presented in Chapter 3, culture is conceptualised as a middle way between essentialism and voluntarism, while historical evolution is understood in a dialectical sense, drawing on both materialist and idealist factors. A century ago, the French geographer Vidal de la Blache proposed a conceptual fusion by introducing the concept of ‘milieu’ ‘which embraced not only the physical but also the cultural environment within which [ … ] judgements and choices are made’ (Baker 2003: 73). The majority of scholars dealing with the nature—culture relationship (among them environmental historians, historical ecologists, and historical geographers) adopt a similarly integrated position.

Hannes R. Stephan

6. Agri-Cultural and Culinary Identities

Chapters 3 and 5 suggested that defensive reactions to modernity’s rapid environmental and socio-cultural changes can often be regarded as instances of identity politics. Nostalgic visions of the past and images of nature or the ideal landscape are employed as symbolic ‘ramparts’ against the forces of rationalisation and industrialisation. The concept of nature also figures prominently in such counter-movements. The present chapter builds on these insights and explores their relevance for the political controversy over GMOs. It concentrates on the analysis of European developments because, despite a recent upsurge in activism, a comparable resistance to agbiotech has not yet developed in the US. The previous chapter’s historical overview also underscores another fundamental point. As Schaffer’s (1997: 124) quotation (in Chapter 3) implied, early modern and late modern resistance to ‘progress’ has important parallels, particularly the tendency to fuse notions of cultural and natural order and insist on the centrality of customs and ‘heritage’.

Hannes R. Stephan


This book has made the case for embedding existing perspectives on US and EU agbiotech regulation in a broader cultural-political account that complements agent-centric analyses with contextual insights. By highlighting the catalytic potential of cultural-political opportunities, I have shed light on the deep-lying sources of regulatory divergence and, by extension, on the persistence of the transatlantic divide. I have argued that environmental history and macro-sociological accounts can elucidate contemporary responses to a particularly controversial environmental (and moral) topic: the genetic modification of ‘nature’, which is a project to ‘redesign’ and commercialise biological life (Tokar 2001). Existing perspectives on regulatory politics deliver multi-causal analyses which are essential for a comprehensive explanation. Political economy approaches thus identify public opinion, political mobilisation, short-term interests, and the structure of commodity chains as critical elements. Institutionalists draw attention to political opportunity structures (such as political systems), bureaucratic politics, and the gradual entrenchment of organising principles and regulatory traditions.

Hannes R. Stephan


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