Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 289–303 | Cite as

The Food Debate: Ethical versus Substantial Equivalence

  • Sylvie Pouteau


Substantial equivalence (SE) has beenintroduced to assess novel foods, includinggenetically modified (GM) food, by means ofcomparison with traditional food. Besides anumber of objections concerning its scientificvalidity for risk assessment, the maindifficulty with SE is that it implies that foodcan be qualified on a purely substantial basis.SE embodies the assumption that only reductivescientific arguments are legitimate fordecision-making in public policy due to theemphasis on legal issues. However, the surge ofthe food debate clearly shows that thistechnocratic model is not accepted anymore.Food is more than physico-chemical substanceand encompasses values such as quality andethics. These values are legitimate in theirown right and require that new democraticprocesses are set up for transverse,transdisciplinary assessment in partnershipwith society. The notion of equivalence canprovide a reference scale in which to examinethe various legitimate factors involved:substance (SE), quality (QualitativeEquivalence: QE), and ethics (EthicalEquivalence: EE). QE requires that newqualitative methods of evaluation that are notbased on reductive principles are developed. EEcan provide a basis for the development of anEthical Assurance as a counterpart of QualityAssurance in the food sector. In France, asecond circle of expertise is being set up toaddress the social issues in food public policybeside classical risk assessment by the firstcircle of expertise. Since ethics is likely tobecome an organizing principle of the secondcircle, the equivalence ethical framework canprove instrumental in this context.

equivalence ethical framework,/kwd>  ``Ethical Assurance'' second circle of expertise food integrity genetically modified (GM) food legitimate factors quality substantial equivalence 


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sylvie Pouteau
    • 1
  1. 1.Laboratoire de Biologie Cellulaire, INRA, Route de Saint-CyrEthos INRA (Versailles cedexFrance

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