The OECD and its member countries have been developing a science-based approach to assessing the safety of new biotechnology products for almost 20 years. But times have moved fast and when it comes to genetically modified foods, policymakers are waking up to two new challenges. First, the commercialisation of new GM crops and foods is an increasingly global issue, not one for OECD countries alone. Second, this is not an issue just for governments. In many countries, other stakeholders – consumer groups, environmental NGOs, business and industry – have become concerned and increasingly active.
Views differ widely on almost every issue related to GM foods. Some developing countries see GM technology as crucial to feeding their rapidly growing populations, noting that in China, with 20% of world population and 7% of land surface, and in North America people have been eating GM foods for almost a decade with no adverse effects reported in scientific literature. But many consumer groups counter that it is too early to dismiss the possibility of unforeseen long-term impacts. Another argument is that poverty, faulty distribution of existing food stocks, technology-transfer bottlenecks and war are the cause of hunger in developing countries, not lack of GM crops, and that traditional agriculture could feed the population if properly managed.
Environmental concerns also loom large, with discussion focusing mainly on potential risks and benefits associated with GM crops. Many environmentalists feel that the risks associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) cannot be evaluated effectively given the current state of knowledge. But proponents claim that GM crops provide demonstrable environmental benefits, such as pest resistance that reduces the need for toxic pesticides.
The majority of stakeholders do not reject biotechnology per se, but want to see more careful oversight and monitoring of the processes and products derived from new biotechnology. Many say they do not believe science has satisfactorily addressed their concerns about the effects of GMOs on human health or the environment.
One thing is clear: the need for transparency. Consumers all over the world are insisting on the right to know exactly what is in the food they are buying and whether it has been genetically modified. They also want to know whether their food is safe.
Reconciling such widely diverging views will clearly not be easy, but a first step is to establish what the different views are and why. The OECD has been working on identifying the views and concerns of all stakeholders in the GM issue since November 1999, when it invited more than 50 non-governmental organisations from civil society and the scientific and business communities to meet in Paris. Consumer health and food safety emerged as key concerns, and food safety was addressed in greater detail at a conference on GM Food Safety in Edinburgh three months later. Representatives of both OECD and non-OECD countries attended this meeting, as well as a range of stakeholders.
A key message from Edinburgh was that policy decisions about GM foods, as well as the assessment of their safety, should be more inclusive and open than had typically been the case in the past. People want to be consulted and to know how decisions have been reached.
This theme of "openness and inclusiveness”", was echoed at a joint OECD/UK conference on New Biotechnology Food and Crops: Science, Safety and Society, in Bangkok in July. Participants included experts from intergovernmental organisations, scientific institutions, consumer and environmental groups and industry, as well as government regulators and policymakers.
The aim was to look at ways to ensure that the best scientific knowledge available is made an integral part of the international process of consensus building and to further the concept of open and transparent consultation with all stakeholders.
Edinburgh had focused on the safety factors considered during the assessment of new GM foods, such as toxicity, allergenicity and nutrition. Conference chairman Sir John Krebs concluded that some of the current methods need re-examination. At Bangkok, conference chairman Lord Selborne concluded that in the future such information should not only satisfy the regulatory process but should also form part of an exercise in accountability to all stakeholders: civil society, countries and the environment. He added that all national and international bodies concerned with new biotechnology should participate in appropriate stakeholder fora.
There is general agreement that all people, in developed and developing countries alike, have the right to safe food and a safe environment. But some developing countries need financial assistance to build their research capacity and ensure that they are in a position to judge if particular developments, whether GM food or new farming methods, are safe and appropriate for them. More publicly funded research would provide greater confidence and allow projects for which no financial return can be expected, in developed and developing countries.
One outstanding issue that has frequently been raised at the meetings on food safety and biotechnology is the underlying science related to the environmental impacts of transgenic organisms. To address this, the OECD will be holding a conference on the environmental aspects of living modified rganisms (LMOs) in Raleigh, North Carolina, in November.
Views on the potential of new biotechnology remain strongly polarised and these differences are unlikely to be reconciled in the near future. OECD experts will continue to play an important role in identifying and addressing the needs of stakeholders throughout the world.
Visit the Bangkok Conference website, http://www.oecd.org/bangkok/
For more about the OECD’s work on biotechnology and the LMO conference, http://www.oecd.org/ehs/icgb/
Results of the OECD Consultation with NGOs are found at http://www.oecd.org/subject/biotech/ngoconsultation.htm
A large number of OECD documents related to biotechnology/ biosafety can be accessed at http://www.oecd.org/ehs/public.htm
©OECD Observer No 228, September 2001