BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ The major Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conference on genetically modified (GM) foods in Edinburgh, UK, last week included a variety of views on the scientific and health implications of biotechnology, but ended with little more than a call for yet more talks.
The conference chairman, Sir John Krebs, professor of zoology at Oxford University and the chairman designate of the future UK Food Standards Agency, closed the three-day meeting with the suggestion of an international consultative panel to address all sides of the GM debate.
¿There is a case for suggesting the development of some kind of continuing international dialogue,¿ Krebs said, to examine not only the agricultural and food aspects of biotechnology, but also issues such as trade, economic development, environmental and ethical questions. Science alone can not provide all the answers, he said. ¿It would have to be based on science. But it has to be science plus the broader issues of economic development, trade and other concerns that we have heard here.¿
Even then, he admitted, there are still questions governments in both the developed and the developing world would have to answer on how such a dialogue could be formalized, and in any case it could be only advisory: its purpose would be ¿to inform rather than to make policy.¿
The secretary general of the OECD, Donald J. Johnston, agreed the idea was worth ¿a hard look,¿ and saw a role for the OECD in facilitating such international dialogue.
About 400 participants from more than 40 countries representing governments, industry and civil society organizations, including Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth and GeneWatch, debated the uncertainties of serving the needs of society and the reliability of risk assessment that are throwing an increasingly long shadow over biotechnology in Europe and beyond. The conference, intended to provide input to a report that the OECD will submit to the Group of Eight industrial countries for its summit at Okinawa, Japan, in July, is the first international attempt to resolve the conflicts between consumer and environmentalist concerns on the one hand, and industrial and scientific pressure for continued innovation on the other.
The draft report from the meeting said there was wide agreement on the need for a more open, transparent and inclusive debate and for openness in the policy process. Wide acknowledgment that there is potential benefit to be gained from GM technology was, however, counterbalanced by frequent expressions of concern from critics of biotechnology about health risks and wider issues such as the impact on the environment and on developing countries, and calls for a global moratorium on GM crops.
Any chance of the conference settling the disputes over how far new technology should be restrained by society¿s doubts received an early blow when UK Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly endorsed a call for prudence on the eve of the conference itself. His comments were all the more striking since he had been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of biotechnology among European political leaders.
His doubts received a faithful echo at the conference itself when Mo Mowlam, the UK minister responsible for biotechnology, noted in her opening remarks that ¿there is a degree of concern and confusion among the public¿ over biotechnology. ¿The voice from the scientific community has got to be heard clearer and louder than it has been in my view in the last couple of years. I think that will help everybody, particularly the public, across different countries to make a decision as to their own personal views as to the nature of the GM products,¿ she said.
She declared that the UK government is neither for nor against GM foods, but for protecting ¿the health of the public. We are pro the protection of the environment, and we are pro people making a choice themselves.¿ While she said the government was ¿pro the Biotech industries,¿ at the same time it wanted to ensure that potential benefits are ¿fully researched and examined. But I think it is generally too early to be definitive. So in the meantime we must be sure that we don¿t put human health at risk or harm the environment.¿ Citing the UK prime minister, she said: ¿There is potential, and potential is the important word, harmful effects.¿