Conference maps out way ahead for GM foods

Creation of inter-governmental panel suggested to address health, environmental, issues

A three-day international conference on genetically modified (GM) foods ended in Edinburgh on Wednesday with a call by its chairman, John Krebs, for an inter-governmental consultative panel "to address all sides of the GM debate". Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) chief Donald Johnston signalled that the body could "facilitate" such a panel. The OECD is expected to put a formal proposal to the G8 group of industrialised countries in July.

Bringing together participants from diverse backgrounds in both developed and developing countries, the conference was marked by continuing fundamental disagreements. European biotechnology industry association EuropaBio welcomed "recognition of the invaluable work" of the OECD in developing "science-based safety assessment". But environmental groups said the conference had missed the point by focusing on food safety while "ignoring the fundamental ethical and value-based questions".

A general consensus emerged that risk assessment of GM crops and foods as well as policy making should become more "open, transparent and inclusive". But disagreement continued over what this should mean in practice. In particular, there was a sharp divergence between those who believed that GM food safety issues could be assessed on their own merits and others who believed they were inseparable from wider environmental, trade, socio-economic and ethical issues.

A draft meeting report compiled by two rapporteurs acknowledges that GM food benefits to industrialised country consumers have thus far been "intangible or marginal," but says there have been no serious ill effects either. It claims that GM technologies could play an important role in ensuring food security in developing countries while acknowledging that biotechnology "can only be part of a range of answers". It adds that the large number of GM crop field tests that have taken place "without adverse effects suggests that we may be able to manage the risks under the specific conditions encountered".

The rapporteurs suggest that the principle of substantial equivalence that currently underpins GM food safety assessments should be reviewed. They call for a "more subtle approach" to ownership issues, a reassessment of funding of international agricultural research, and a "collaborative and comparative testing programme on health and environmental issues of GM technologies".

Follow Up:
OECD, tel: +33 1 45 24 82 00, and official information on the GM food safety conference.

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