Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Biological Sciences/Science, Technology and Society - Faculty of Science


In this thesis I present a critical appraisal of Australia's environmental regulation of genetically modified (GM) crops. I begin by suggesting that, although realist risk analysis currently dominates environmental decision-making on recombinant DNA technologies, the existence of contested values and widespread scientific uncertainty challenge the adequacy of this approach. What an appropriate approach to regulatory decision-making under these conditions would involve is then used as a guiding question to survey literature on risk and uncertainty from a range of social science disciplines. Through this survey, a theoretical framework is synthesised where the ends of a spectrum of stances taken towards environmental decision-making are contrastingly described as traditional 'science/risk' and emerging 'precaution/uncertainty' based approaches. After describing the important components of precaution/uncertainty based approaches and suggesting that they represent a more appropriate way to orient environmental decision-making on GM crops, I then analyse Australia's regulatory framework in terms of where it can be positioned along the science/risk - precaution/uncertainty spectrum. Exploring the key distinguishing themes of the discourse of decision-making, the role awarded science, the avenues for public participation, the requirements for ongoing research and monitoring, and the range of policy options considered, I argue that Australia's environmental regulation of GM crops currently represents a predominantly science/risk based approach to decision-making. With the process of 'objective' scientific risk assessment shown to be central in Australia's environmental regulation of GM crops, I then perform a detailed deconstruction of a case study risk assessment - the impact of Bt cotton on non-target organisms. Using criteria developed to explore the analytical themes of the reliability of cited scientific studies, how scientific information was used and the adequacy/appropriateness of the conclusions drawn, the thesis provides a detailed example of 'extended peer review'. This review challenges the objectivity of the risk assessment process, demonstrates the value of social science analyses of science for policy and offers a framework to help advance these forms of investigation. Through this research, I critically appraise Australia's environmental regulation of GM crops, present recommendations for how it could be improved, and provide practical and theoretical frameworks to assist the development of robust processes for environmental decision-making.

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