Published 2020-02-19

This post is also available in Swedish

GM legislation failing to tackle risks reasonably

Sven Ove Hansson’s hope is that, over its eight years, the Mistra Biotech research programme has helped to make the debate on genetic modification (GM) more evidence-based.

‘Current GM legislation isn’t justifiable in terms of our scientific knowledge of the risks,’ he says.

There are many examples of difficulty in getting a breakthrough for sensible thinking, and the climate debate is one. If you assume the world is rational, you can get a bit frustrated. But you have to realise that this is not how we humans function, thinks Sven Ove Hansson, Professor of Philosophy at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Sven Ove Hansson

His research career has been long and successful. For much of this century, Hansson has been head of philosophy at KTH, but in recent years he has handed over the formal responsibility to others. Although past retirement age, he has no plans to cut down on his own research, even when Mistra Biotech comes to an end.

When I ask him to pick out the most important experience his research work has given him, he mentions the period 1975–78 in particular.

‘Those years as an active trade unionist, when I worked jointly on risk issues with people who were exposed to risks themselves, were hugely important for me and helped to boost my drive as a researcher to this day.’

By the age of 24, Hansson was far advanced in his medical training in Lund. But he chose to drop out of his studies to concentrate on union work instead. For three years, as health and safety manager at the then Swedish Factory Workers’ Union (Fabriks), he worked to reduce exposure to chemicals among Sweden’s industrial workers.

‘I was out at many workplaces and talked to people whose jobs exposed them to health risks, and I took part in numerous negotiations and discussions. It was largely a matter of presenting scientific arguments about something being dangerous. It’s given me a very solid foundation for practical management of risk issues.’

Hansson started his academic career relatively late in life. Aged 40, he obtained a PhD — his first. After discontinuing his medical studies and union involvement in the 1970s, he worked politically for a few years at the Social Democratic Party office. In the mid-1980s, he was appointed executive secretary in the state commission that reviewed contemporary legislation on chemicals. One of the commission’s lasting legacies was the precautionary principle, which remains a guideline in Swedish chemicals handling. On the commission’s recommendation, the Swedish Chemicals Agency was also established in 1986. Hansson then began his postgraduate education at Uppsala University, and completed his doctorate in theoretical philosophy in 1991. Just a few years later, he gained another PhD, this time in practical philosophy.

‘I’ve always been opposed to the old Swedish division of the subject of philosophy into a practical and a theoretical side. I’d been doing things in both subjects, so when I wrote a book on practical philosophy I took the opportunity to do another PhD. It didn’t call for that much extra work.’

In his further research work as a philosopher, Hansson has extensively tackled the philosophy of risk. He has, for example, delved deeply into how the precautionary principle can and should be applied in different areas.

‘My interests are quite broad. It’s always been about getting things sorted out, finding more precise ways of dealing with issues. Rationality is a powerful aspiration in my work.’

Hansson has also engaged in outreach activities, especially involving the boundary between science and pseudoscience (what claims to be based on science but is not). He was the Swedish Skeptics Association’s first Chair, for example.

‘It’s important for science to be of benefit to society. For much of what I’ve been doing, that’s been the purpose. But then you also need patience to work within an academic discipline and develop new methods.’

Since 2013, Hansson has been Mistra Biotech’s Programme Director. The programme has worked for a more science-based and permissive view of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), i.e. crops and foodstuffs.

‘The EU’s restrictive GM legislation makes it very difficult to grow and use genetically modified crops and foodstuffs. But it’s a technology that can help us achieve important sustainability goals, especially reduced environmental impact and adaptation to climate change in Swedish farming.’

The legislation does not permit balanced assessment: in practice, it entails a general ban. If the precautionary principle, which Hansson has studied and applied in practical ways over the years, were to be applied more in a more scientific, rational way — with benefits weighed against risks in every individual case — more genetically modified agricultural products would be allowed, he believes.

‘The GM legislation that exists today is based on an application of the precautionary principle that can’t be justified by our scientific knowledge of the risks.’

He stresses that he is no one-sided GM advocate, but opposes the prevailing polarised view. Instead of legislating about which technology is used, it is more important to look at the results.

‘Stupid things can be done with genetic engineering too, of course. But the GM tools used by plant breeders today cause no particular concern. There’s a scientific consensus on this.’

Public and political opposition is based partly on the idea that people should not intervene in nature. But this has nothing to do with risk assessment, Hansson thinks. Moreover, he notes that in using today’s traditional plant-breeding methods, we have already modified many crops so much that they are incapable of surviving unaided in the natural environment.

‘The arguments against GM crops are very often based on the misconception that traditional farming is natural. Look at wheat, for instance: it’s so domesticated and improved that it hasn’t got a chance of managing on its own in the natural environment.’

In Mistra Biotech, now in its second phase and to be completed in 2020, Hansson and his colleagues have worked for a more science-based view of genetic engineering. They have, for example, provided decision support for legislation.

‘There’s no shortcut past a public discussion, where various objections are discussed. In this area, as in others, researchers have an obligation to report what they know, participate in a constructive debate and listen to what others have to say.’

The programme’s long-term efforts to mould opinion may have begun to bear fruit. During the programme period, the researchers have noticed a shift in Sweden towards a more science-based approach to these issues, Hansson says.

‘Even in circles previously involved in resistance to GM, people are now slightly less negative towards GM. I hope Mistra Biotech has contributed to that. No methods can prove it, but if we’ve contributed to a swing in opinion, that would be Mistra Biotech’s most important result.’

About Sven Ove Hansson

Programme Director of Mistra Biotech, which will be completed in 2020, and Professor of Philosophy at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Age: 68.

Family: wife; two children who have left home.

Lives in: Bromma, Greater Stockholm.

Leisure: ‘My great interest is music. I’m involved in the Swedish Early Music Society and I play the violin in the KTH symphony orchestra.’

Favourite composer: All unknown composers. I’m very fond of Baroque music. There are many composers from the period that one’s never heard of, but who have written very fine music.

Hidden talent: I have no talents; I work hard!

Text: Henrik Lundström