Biotechnology at the OECD
Since 1980 the OECD has been a leading player in addressing biotechnology--related issues. During that time, modern biotechnology has evolved from a scientific curiosity towards commercial applications, and has reached the in-trays of more and more policy advisers, in different ministries or government agencies – science, industry, agriculture, health, environment, education, development, trade, patent office and others. It became impossible for any one agency to pretend to a monopoly on it.
At OECD biotechnology also reached the agenda of committees and subsidiary bodies, to such a point that in 1993 an Internal Co-ordination Group for Biotechnology was established to facilitate co-operation between the various programmes. So how do these various parts of the whole work?For science and technology policy, the main objective of the OECD’s Working Party on Biotechnology is to provide support to the policies of member countries, particularly in the areas of public health, sustainable industrial development and bio-resource centres, such as culture collections, databanks and bio-informatics. The Working Party is also undertaking a major project on biotechnology for sustainable development which will provide guidance to industry and government on implementing new bioprocess technologies.On the environment, a Working Group on Harmonisation of Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology was established in 1993. Building on the earlier concepts of safety assessment, this group addressed in detail the safety assessment issues associated with a range of cultivated crop plants and micro-organisms, selecting first those plants or traits most commonly the object of transform-ation by modern biotechnology. The Working Group developed a standard pattern of activity, to produce over twenty ‘consensus documents’, on a standard model, and by a uniform procedure. A country with particular interest or experience volunteers to act as ‘lead country’ on a particular topic and the draft gradually develops through circulation and amendment. UN agencies – UNIDO and UNEP – participate, and when a document addresses a plant species whose wild relatives are indigenous to a particular region, experts in the countries concerned are consulted. Thus consensus documents are built through a science-based international dialogue, focusing on such matters as the biology of the organism and the -nature of the transformation.As to agriculture, the OECD Schemes for Seed Certification were developed to regulate international trade in seed. Their main purpose is to harmonise the assessment and certification of identity and -purity of cultivated crop varieties – including genetically modified ones. Another important agricult-ural project at OECD is a Co-operative Research Programme, which provides post-doctoral fellowships for young scientists to work in a foreign laboratory. It also organises scientific workshops covering a number of topics which include work on biotechno-logy (see article on dialogue, p. 31).
Finally, as part of OECD’s work on trade, a synthesis of national submissions on intellectual property rights in biotechnology has been developed and the results of this work were published in February 1999.
©OECD Observer No 216, March 1999