An OECD conference in Edinburgh on the scientific and health aspects of genetically modified (GM) foods ended with a call from the conference chairman for the creation 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", Sir John Krebs, who is Professor of Zoology at Oxford University and the chairman designate of the future U.K. Food Standards Agency, told delegates at the close of the three-day conference.
How such a dialogue could be formalised would need to be discussed by governments in both the developed and the developing world, he said, adding that in his view its purpose would be "to inform rather than to make policy". He recommended, however, that such a panel, if it is created, should deal not only with the agricultural and food aspects of biotechnology but also with a range of other issues including trade, economic development, and environmental and ethical questions. It should take science as its starting point but build on work already being done in other fora. "If such an international discussion did go forward, it would have to be based on science," Sir John declared. "But it has to be science plus the broader issues of economic development, trade and other concerns that we have heard here."
Commenting on the suggestion, the Secretary General of the OECD, Donald J. Johnston, said he agreed that it is "an idea that we should take a hard look at." Any decision would be up to governments, he noted, but he added that the OECD would be well placed to facilitate such an international dialogue, as it already does in other areas ranging from sustainable development to electronic commerce.
The Edinburgh conference -- titled GM Food Safety: Facts, Uncertainties and Assessment (28 February-1 March) -- brought together 400 participants from more than 40 countries representing governments, industry and civil society organisations, including Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth and GeneWatch. Hosted by the U.K. government, the conference forms part of an ongoing programme of work at the OECD on biotechnology. Its conclusions will serve as input into a report that the OECD will submit to the Group of Eight industrial countries for their summit at Okinawa, Japan, in July 2000.
This follows a request from the G8 leaders at their summit in Cologne in June 1999 that the OECD "undertake a study of the implications of biotechnology and other aspects of food safety," and an earlier endorsement of the OECD's biotechnology programme by OECD ministers in May 1999.
In a draft summary, the two rapporteurs of the conference Dr. Peter Tindemans, a Dutch scientific consultant to governments, international organisations, and other public and private bodies, and Iain Gillespie, a British civil servant currently working at the U.K. Department of Health said its purpose had been to seek common ground on whether and how applications of GM technologies in the food and crops sector serve the needs of society. They added that the conference also scrutinised critically whether the systems in place for the assessment of the risks and benefits of GM food are considered trustworthy by governments, industry, scientists, social interest groups and regulatory agencies.
The rapporteurs identified a number of points on which they said there was general agreement among the majority of the participants. These, they said, included the need for a more open, transparent and inclusive debate and for openness and transparency in the policy process, as well as an acknowledgment that there is potential benefit to be gained from GM technology. In addition, they noted, many consumers eat GM foods and no significant effects have yet been detected on human health.
The rapporteurs added, however, that on many issues there continued to be opposing views. Some participants, they observed, regard human health aspects of GM foods as inseparable from wider issues, such as the impact on the environment, trade and socio-economic factors and belief systems. There was also disagreement on whether genetic modification is part of a continuum in the development of tools for plant breeding, or a fundamental change in the way new crops are produced, necessitating new ways of assessing food safety.
A further point of contention concerned the issue of whether individual countries should be allowed to develop GM technology for food production according to their own needs, or whether there should be a global moratorium on GM crops. In addition, there was a lack of complete agreement on such issues as the mandatory labeling of GM foods, the usefulness of feeding trials in animals of GM foods and on the process of assessing consumer concerns. Finally, a need for further work was identified in relation to the potential long-term effects of GM food on human health, worker safety and the environment.