Many countries are apprehensive about the impact of agricultural biotechnology on the environment and on consumers’ health.
In addition to concerns about biosafety, issues around plant diversity, the moral and social dilemma of tampering with nature, legal issues regarding ownership of genetic materials, and religious concerns have also arisen.
Some would prefer to ban genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) entirely, others have proposed labelling schemes, either voluntary (eg, ‘GMO free’) or mandatory (eg, ‘contains genetically modified soy’ or ‘contains soy genetically modified to increase herbicide resistance’) to identify the products of modern biotechnology to consumers.
To address these concerns, governments are enacting a wide range of regulatory proposals on production, processing and distribution mechanisms of biotechnology.
Appropriate regulatory responses depend on the nature of GMOs and consumer interest in the development and diffusion of modern biotechnology.
At the recent conference, Modern Biotechnologies: Sustainable Innovation and Regulatory Needs, in Penang, Malaysia, I had the opportunity to learn how current regulations address consumers’ concerns about existing and emerging biotechnologies, specifically on the regulations relating to technologies which alter the genetic structure of an organism.
Globally, opinions are divided about the best form of regulation to address consumer concerns about GMO.
It was generally agreed at the conference that regulatory agencies should consider adopting rules or policy statements regarding the criteria they will include in their risk assessments.
For example, rules pertaining to access to information (labelling) should be made clear so that consumers can make informed choices about modern biotechnology.
When adopting policy statements, it was recommended that agencies give notice to the public with an invitation to submit comments concerning the outcome.
Public participation in the decision making process can provide policy makers with valuable information that they may not have access to through any other channels.
Interestingly, countries that have passed GMO regulations allow consumer participation and access to information.
Consumers in developed countries are better informed compared to those in developing countries, which need to strive to increase consumer participation in the decision-making process.
Other common areas of interest that emerged from the conference were:
- Supporting countries in implementing the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which acknowledges the need to establish comprehensive criteria for GMO risk assessment
- Developing improved methodologies, techniques and protocols for greater understanding of the risks
- Risk assessments based on scientific procedures
The conference brought together major players from the fields of biotechnology, science, experts from intergovernmental organisations, scientific institutions, consumer and environmental interest groups, industry, government regulators, policy makers, and the media.
Hopefully, this conference will help countries begin to develop a comprehensive and specific legal and institutional framework to govern modern biotechnologies.