Taken literally the provision on Social Sustainability in the Austrian Gene Technology Act is almost impossible to implement (see our respective project). A new interpretation aimed at societal inclusion, public debate and participation in decision making on technology policy.
A very successful popular petition in 1996 against GMO releases, GM food and patenting may be interpreted as a contribution towards the socially sustainable shaping of technology. However, the character of the demands and the nature of media coverage of the developments were in contrast to the implicit aim of fostering enlightenment. Government and petitioners ended up in a catch-22 situation with the relevant EU regulations on the one hand, and the demands of the petition on the other. This project aimed to analyse the situation and to highlight possible options.
The origins of this situation can be traced back to the events surrounding the first proposals for GMO releases in Austria. The government's strategy turned out to be untenable, and public opposition was much greater than anticipated. An 'illegal' release caused loss of trust in government and scientists and lead to public mobilisation against GMOs, which in the end gave rise to the petition. At the same time at EU level, the Austrian government acted in a way which was critical of genetic engineering. This resulted in the government having no room left to manoeuvre. In the end, both the aim of societal inclusion and practical politics made it necessary to bridge the gap between EU regulation and the petition's demands. However, regulation provided leeway in only handful of and restricted areas. The government made use of them during the amendment of the Gene Technology Act, although the new regulations did not meet most of the petition's demands at all.
The project came to the conclusion that in order to restore trust the Gene Technology Committee should take on new tasks, the administrative procedure should be made more concise, and an 'ombudsman' should be installed as a contact person for the public. A scientific institute should provide the basis for a 'GM-free' labelling. Additionally, voluntary agreements between actors achieved with the help of participative decision making procedures as applied in several European countries could open up new pathways towards social sustainability.