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December 17, 2009

Faith in technology?

Scott Stockdale

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In the ongoing debate about whether technology has values embedded in it or is value free, Dr. Conrad Brunk, says the latter argument is currently the dominant one - although not necessarily the correct one.

Scott StockdaleIn the ongoing debate about whether technology has values embedded in it or is value free, Dr. Conrad Brunk, says the latter argument is currently the dominant one - although not necessarily the correct one.

Dr. Brunk is philosophy and ethics professor at the University of  Victoria, BC.

Speaking at the Canadian Council of Churches Forum on Faith, Life and Technology, in Toronto recently, Dr. Brunk said technology imposes values upon us unless we have the social and political structures which are able to develop and implement it so it's guided by the values and aims of society.

While environmental and human health concerns are paramount, Dr. Brunk said determining what risks are acceptable in developing technology involves a complex process. It's not just determining if risks outweigh benefits.

“Production and distribution of risk, method of risk management and post market surveillance are important factors. The democratic method involves soliciting concerns – i.e., expert panels and parliamentary committees – as a way to implement technology and determine public policy.

He cited the Royal Commission on Reproductive Technology as an example of an effective political process dealing with technology, but added that it's one of the few success stories because, “Strong corporate values and government efficiency work together to limit the information available.”

Moreover, Dr. Brunk said that with regard to an effective system of risk management, we don't have the stakeholder hearings that the U.K., Germany and the Scandinavian countries have; and we don't have a lot of legislation – criminal or civil – governing technology and its development.

He cited GM (genetically modified foods) as an example of our lack of governance of technology.

“GM plants and foods were introduced to the North American market with no prior public debate. In the U.K. and Europe public debate led to a moratoria on GM foods.”

He said our officials saw this public consultation process as having created a serious problem for Europe and the thinking here is “Thank God we don't have that (stakeholder input) in Canada and the U.S.”

Here  in North America there are no specific regulatory mechanisms for GM foods. Dr. Brunk said we treat GM foods like other plants that happen to have novel traits, but we don't distinguish the technological processes that made them that way. And our officials use substantial equivalence – assuming GM foods are like conventional foods – to determine risk.

Moreover, although polls show labelling GM foods is the most important issue with consumers (90% support labelling), Dr. Brunk said there is a great deal of resistance from governments and corporations. Consequently, labelling is voluntary in North America, and mandatory in Europe and Japan.

Dr. Brunk said there is actually more concern about cloning animals and pets than GM Foods.

Along with concerns about the environment and animal welfare, he said people were concerned when studies showed that modifying genes in animals have changed the nutritional impact of meat.

Labelling is also a concern because traceability issues are much different for animal products than for plants.

  1. D.A. (district attorney) decided that there are no safety issues in   cloning so it approved cloned animals in the market, but industry is moving slowly. Cloned animals are not approved in Canada but there's no way to identify cloned animals in the market in Canada. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) held consultations but it can't incorporate its findings.”

Dr. Brunk said studies that are included in a soon to be released book “Stakeholder Perceptions of Genetically Modified Animals” show that human health trumps animal welfare.

The authors conducted focus groups with farmers, science researchers, health researchers, health care providers, animal welfare advocates, government regulators and religious groups.

While most stakeholders identified the same values, Dr. Brunk said they prioritized them differently. GM mice to increase susceptibility to cancer was given the top priority, followed by a GM cow to produce human insulin in its milk; and the least priority was given to GM animals to preserve biodiversity.

Dr. Brunk said governments don't respond unless public opinion is mobilized.

He then cited the example of human cloning, an issue of great public concern that has caused North American governments to move slowly on.

But later in his lecture he said the Bush administration imposed limitations on stem cell research, restraining the use of public money for this purpose internationally, because they wanted to preserve the right of private companies in the U.S. to do it.

Finding a niche in technology in order to give companies and countries a leg up on the competition is the number one priority of most research, Dr. Brunk said, “Because if we don't, we will lose the economic competition.”

Consequently, researchers are motivated to innovate, and they have to cooperate with industry to do this because they need both public and private money to conduct their research. This in turn leads to an anti-governance mentality because limits and controls slow down research, Dr. Brunk said.  “Governments want to research, patent and sell to recoup costs.

“The system of global trade encourages minimum standards given by the lowest common denominator in the interests of trade.”

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto. 

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