The genetically modified organism shall not be refused? Talking back to the technosciences

Barbara Van Dyck, Anneleen Kenis, Andy Stirling

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Starting from Marcel Mauss’ observation that “one has no right to refuse a gift”, this paper explores the politics of refusal in the context of field trials with genetically modified organisms in Flanders (Belgium). Based on a decade of activist research, and focusing on the genetically modified organism field trials of the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, we show that the business model of this strategic research center – with its triple mission of carrying biotechnology research, technology transfer, and the promotion of biotechnology through communication and lobby activities – fosters a climate in which innovations in the technosciences have to “be accepted”. The future is laid out without including the possibility of refusal. Consternation is great when this is exactly what happens. Irrational fears and lack of understanding or lack of familiarity are invoked to explain refusal. Language of precision, innovation, safety, and control are deployed to re-assure the public. Refusal is not considered a legitimate option. Yet, if farmers and grassroots initiatives would accept the gift of genetically modified organisms, it would mean the acceptance of their dispossession and the impossibility of diverse food sovereignties. Starting from theoretical work on “the gift” and “the politics of refusal”, we argue that recognizing innovation as the intrinsically plural and divergent process it is, entails including options to refuse particular pathways as a first step to open up others. As we will argue, saying no to genetically modified organisms is part of saying yes to peasant autonomy, agrobiodiversity, and peoples’ food sovereignties.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Early online date31 Aug 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License ( which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages


European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 707807.
The work of the second author was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO)


  • Politics of refusal
  • gift
  • technosciences
  • genetical modification(GMO)
  • innovation
  • peasant autonomy
  • food sovereignty


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