The OECD, mandated by the G8 to shed light on biotechnology and food safety, has been listening hard to the views of the NGOs. First, it held a consultative meeting with NGOs on 20 November 1999. Then a major conference on the scientific and health aspects of genetically modified foods was held jointly with the British government from 28 February to 1 March 2000 in Edinburgh. Through both events it has been possible to form a much clearer picture of the reservations and arguments put forward by the NGOs. And it is pretty obvious that there is quite a range of views, including some differences, among them.
Probably the first and most vocal group to take issue with the new technologies are the environmentalists. In their view, GMOs may irreversibly upset the balance of nature. For that reason they are demanding a moratorium on the production and marketing of GMOs until more is known about their potential effects on flora, fauna and human beings.
Next in line come the consumer organisations. The Europeans, who have been particularly sensitive about food issues generally since the BSE (mad-cow disease) and other food-related scares, were the first to make their views heard. They demand freedom of consumer choice, and therefore clear and informative labelling as to the presence of GMOs in food, which the European Commission recently decided to do anyway. Consumer groups are not necessarily against GMOs per se, but they firmly believe that consumers should be able to choose not to buy the goods in question, on health, ethical, religious or other grounds. They also point out that there is no solid evidence of any financial, nutritional or other benefits for consumers from GMOs.
The European influence was soon felt across the Atlantic, helped by the impetus of global co-operation that links consumer groups together. Influential North American consumer unions have also begun to ask for compulsory food labelling. Such mandatory labelling does not exist in the United States and in fact is opposed by parts of the food industry. After all, labelling would mean, for instance, having to introduce rigorous methods of identifying, sourcing and tracing food, an operation which would be costly and difficult to implement. Moreover, there is some concern in the industry that GM labelling could unnecessarily scare away some consumers from buying food which might be perfectly safe.
However, ordinary Americans appear to be increasingly worried. The same can be said of their environmentalist and scientific compatriots. Most of them used to be in favour of GMOs, but some are now having fresh doubts, even to the point of claiming that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not disclose the concerns some of its experts had privately harboured about the safety of GMOs as long ago as the early 1990s.
With all this opposition building in the developed world markets, multinationals in the new food sector have turned to the developing countries, where food requirements are enormous and GM crops are seen as the much hoped-for panacea. As a result of government encouragement, particularly in China and Latin America, more and more GM crops are being grown. But resistance is growing in the developing world too, again under the impetus of the NGOs. In Brazil, several states have signed a moratorium at the request of consumer organisations. In India, some NGOs are denouncing the risk of despoilment of local resources by multinationals and are trying to mobilise small farmers, while demanding that the argument that GMOs are a vital weapon in the fight against hunger should be examined more closely. They point out, for instance, that India has a national food surplus but numerous local shortages. The first problem to be tackled, they say, might not be cultivation, but distribution.
Faced with these challenges and uncertainties, governments have been turning to science, only to find that there is indeed little hard research to resolve the issue one way or another. On the other hand, the evidence to date has revealed very few significant adverse effects of GMOs on public health or the environment. So governments are stepping up research, refining decision-making (which means more emphasis on precaution) and asking international regulatory bodies specialising in food safety and trade to review their analytical tools (such as the notion of “substantial equivalence”, see Observer No. 216, 1999) because they might not distinguish clearly enough between the properties of GM foods and conventional produce. Another proposal has been to set up a global institution. After all, the issue is by its very nature impossible to confine within national boundaries. Such an institution would monitor and shed light on scientific and technical developments relating to GMOs, perhaps along the lines of a model that has proved itself in the field of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
This latter proposal was in fact made by the UK government in Edinburgh. But NGOs have reacted with some reluctance, though without putting up a united front against it. Some NGOs even say the idea may be worth trying, while others want to continue the debate before institutionalising anything. Still others have replied that this kind of forum cannot be confined to scientific issues, since in their view scientists have merely served the “common interests” of government and industry, at least until recently. To prevent this from happening again, they say that any new forum will have to cover other questions too, such as trade and intellectual property rights.
Whatever the differences that exist over the GMO question, there would appear to be international and national consensus, first and foremost among governments, that transparent, open exchange in which civil society can have its say should be established and, indeed, become the rule. This would enable the current strident calls for resistance to GMOs to be heard within the framework of a more dispassionate – but nonetheless forthright and vigilant – dialogue.
Cantley, M., and Miyamura, Y., “GM food, regulation and consumer trust” in OECD Observer, no 216, March 1999. Also available at: www.oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php3/aid=82.
©OECD Observer No 220, April 2000