Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Zero risk... Anyone?

I have a passion for driving especially on long distance routes. My first preference would always be to drive (within the peninsular) than to fly but unfortunately my mother hates the idea of me driving long distance. According to her it is dangerous to drive long distance but surprisingly she is fine with me riding bike to work every day (25km one way). I have attempted many times to explain to her that her risk perception is different than mine, but she keeps insisting that driving long distance is riskier and I should avoid it if possible. Clearly my risk perception is different than my mothers.

Different group of people often perceive risk differently depending on their depth of understanding in a certain technology. For example, physic experts may view nuclear technology as generally safe compared to public who considers the technology as dangerous. Significant portion of the public also believes that everything that is natural and from nature is safe but they fail to understand that most known toxic to men are from natural ingredients available freely from nature.

Despite the high number of road accidents and casualties, we don’t give up driving because we see more benefits than risks. Besides that we understand that car makers are consistently trying to make cars safer by introducing various safety features such as EBD, ABS, and airbag among others. This step is vital to mitigate or reduce risk and to increase acceptance among public that driving is made safer with these new technologies.

Well, how is this related to biotechnology? As we all know, biotechnology is a collection of various tools to modify and improvise living things for a better world. One of the products of this technology is GM Food (Genetically Modified Food). General public often feel that something that has been modified from nature is most often bad and dangerous, but they have failed to understand that GM food are made to be safer (through stringent biosafety regulations) than even conventional food that we have been consuming since time immemorial. One may say that this technology has not been tested enough, but haven’t we been eating GM soya for the past twelve years. There has not been a single report on GM food toxicity since GM products went on shelf more than a decade ago but yet some are worried that GM food is harmful. Lay person perceive that GM food are riskier than conventional food due to lack of understanding on the technology. Well, I wouldn’t drive a car if I am not aware of the safety features available in it. Imagine driving a car without brakes!!!.

The same goes for GM technology, the public should have an open mind on this issue; enrich their knowledge on the technology, its benefits, risks, and the safety measures taken before jumping into conclusions. What is more important is to make decisions based on accurate, science-based evidence and not merely on sentiments and beliefs. The benefits of this technology to Malaysia may differ from those to Europe and our priorities and national policies too may differ from some African countries.

On a hypothetical scenario, if petrol prices were to go below RM1.00 per liter, I will definitely start driving to work and not ride my bike. This is where we put our risk-benefit analysis to work. For a rich country that can afford to feed their people, GM food may not be necessary, they can even fully sustain on organic food but GM food may be the only answer for poor and developing countries to feed their growing population. The consequences of not adopting certain technology can pose a risk on its own. There's no such thing as zero risk. Risk-benefit analysis is a must for all technology and clearly GM technology shows more benefits than risks and is definitely going to be one of the drivers in the move towards a cleaner and a healthier world.

Acceptance of a technology is most often based on the understanding of the technology. As per my motto, “A tool that is least understood is often feared: The Unknown is not to be Feared, but to be Understood
- Joel William

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