BRUSSELS, Belgium - The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development already has started responding to the recent call from the leaders of the world's most powerful nations for a full reassessment of biotechnology and food safety.

It was the June summit of the G-8, in Cologne, Germany, that gave OECD a directive to study "the implications of biotechnology and other aspects of food safety" in light of "the increasing importance of issues concerning food safety."

The work is now under way at the OECD working group on harmonization of regulatory oversight of biotechnology and at the OECD task force for the safety of novel foods and feeds.

The G-8 leaders "invited" OECD experts to discuss their findings with the leaders' personal representatives, who are to report back to the next G-8 summit "on possible ways to improve our approach to these issues through international and other institutions."

To stimulate discussion, OECD created an initial policy document that examines some of the sensitive underlying issues. Noting that public opinion in the European Union is now limiting the scope for genetically modified crops in Europe, it pointed out that opinions may become more favorable if circumstances change.

"New demands triggered by environmental degradation and climate change, in conjunction with population growth, may well provide an added impetus for the application of biotechnology to food and food crops in the future," OECD said.

But it recognizes, at present, "the complexity of the issues can make it difficult to identify the right policy response, especially in the awkward cases where public opinion is strong and convincing scientific evidence is in short supply."

Continuing divergences of view - within countries or between countries - also will impact trade, the OECD paper suggested. Given that OECD countries' approaches to biotechnology and food range from limited regulation to complete bans, "differences in attitude and regulatory stances may contribute to trade disputes."

OECD is aiming to improve international dialogue. "The hope is that regulatory reform and harmonization will address the problems of market access, increase consumer confidence in the safety and efficacy of modified organisms, and reduce the risk of serious trade disputes," it said.