The OECD Conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods: Executive Summary
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, is pleased to submit evidence on the following issues to this important OECD Conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified (GM) Foods.
Current Stage of Scientific Developments in the Genetic Modification of Foods
Scientific developments are just at the beginning of their ability to modify plants in a systematic and potentially beneficial way and the Society believes that the application of this technology should proceed with caution. The Society believes, however, that the potential benefits of GM technology are great, but attention has to be paid to the differing needs of developing countries as well as developed countries. This should be a priority for the future.
Potential Effects on Health of Genetically Modified Foods
There is no clear evidence that the scientific process of genetic manipulation of plants is a hazard to human health. Nevertheless, the modifications themselves need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
The existing regulatory framework for GM and non-GM foodstuffs is based on "substantial equivalence" to their non-GM counterparts, and this is a process well established in the regulation of non-GM foodstuffs. The Society believes that the general principles from feedstuff evaluation studies, however, should be incorporated into the regulatory process through a biological testing programme.
The RSE believes that any regulatory framework should be acceptable to the general public. Thus the framework must be transparent, comprehensible and independent. There should also be an overall UK committee to discuss and co-ordinate the work of the different GM regulatory advisory committees.
The Society believes that when there may be a significant risk that cannot be readily resolved, then the precautionary principle should be built into the requirements. However, this principle should not be invoked as an easy, quick alternative to undertaking the difficult process necessary for a proper risk assessment.
Environmental and Consumer Concerns
The widespread public concern about GM foods arises from a complex set of factors, including their impact on food safety and environmental issues. Environmental concerns over GM crops, although not connected with matters of food quality or safety, need to be addressed.
Increasingly, the public is keen to be involved in decision making and resents when decisions on risk are made on its behalf and without its involvement. The Society believes that these reactions must be taken seriously, and addressed realistically by all concerned, including scientists and industrialists.
The RSE believes that international co-operation is essential, and that the OECD should play an important role in this. The reaction, values and risk assessment in Europe will seem foreign to some in the developing world, who may see positive benefits to GM foods. In order to identify appropriate development and technology transfer, there will be a need to engage in both discussion and joint research, in both GM food safety and related experiments, and in surveys conducted by social scientists.