Controversy on the Use of Modern Biotechnology!
The controversy over the use of modern biotechnology has centered primarily on commercial release into the environment, rather than use in laboratories for research, contained use in industry, use in the production of pharmaceuticals and veterinary products or even field trials.
Protesters have, however, chosen to attack and destroy fields in which organisms are being tested. It is the industrial use of genetically modified organisms that may be the major use of modem biotechnology now and in the future.
The Euro-barometer surveys show that there is considerable discrimination amongst the public (at least in Europe) in relation to the various uses that modern biotechnology can be put. Europeans continue to distinguish between different types of applications, particularly medical in contrast to agri-food applications.
For GM crops and GM foods support declined and opposition increased over the period 1996-1999, from 1999- 2002 there is almost no change in levels of support or opposition. European attitudes to six applications of biotechnology indicate the discrimination that has been observed.
In 1994 approximately 7,000 acres were planted under 593 USDA field-test authorisations, compared to 57,000 acres under 1,117 authorisations in 2001. The first biotechnology-derived crops were commercialised in 1996 and, in 2001, approximately 88 million acres were planted in the United States and 130 million acres were planted world-wide.
Canada, Argentina and Mexico are the only other countries in which there has been significant use of modem agricultural biotechnology, although many other countries including South Africa and Australia are starting to increase their use of living modified organisms in agriculture.
China has approved a small number of transgenic varieties of cotton and expects to proceed to the commercial production of modified rice in the next two years. The latest Euro-barometer survey of European attitudes to biotechnology has indicated a recovery of faith in technology, but this may simply be that the de facto moratorium on the commercialisation of plants manufactured using GM techniques has taken the subject out of the public consciousness.
In the United States the American public’s position on the acceptability of genetic modification of food is decidedly undecided 58% of Americans either strongly approve or somewhat approve of creating hybrid plants using genetic modification, while 37% disapprove.
Many developing countries are fearful of the impact of agricultural biotechnology. Zimbabwe and Zambia, for example, have been wary of permitting food-aid which contains transgenic maize into the country, even though many of its people are starving.
The UNEP International Guidelines and the Cartagena Protocol require the public to be informed and educated about bio-safety, but the virulent reaction against the technology in Europe impacts directly on any public image more easily than a reasoned argument for the safe use of the technology. During the first nine months of 1999 in Britain there were a continual series of press reports implying that eating GM food would lead to all sorts of serious diseases.
The attention paid by the media to foods produced using modem biotechnology has been sustained over a long period and is almost totally hostile. The coverage has stressed the technology, rather than the products.
The rejection of genetically modified foods by many European Supermarkets and food producers has impacted on production and growing of genetically modified crops that have to be exported to one of the largest food markets in the world. To grow rice modified so that it produces vitamin A is a wonderful prospect for nutrition in the many countries that depend on rice as a primary food.
GM crops are irrelevant to ending hunger; the new technology puts too much power over food into too few hands; and too little is done to help small farmers grow food in sustainable and organic ways. It is tempting to see biotechnology in agriculture as a clean neutral science, simply transferring progress from the laboratory to the field, improving the lot of everyone.
All technologies are embedded in specific economic and social systems and have different costs and benefits. This response in Western Europe to the new technology cannot easily be dismissed through assertions by scientists that there is negligible risk, or that permits to market transgenic foods and crops (in particular) should be based solely on risk assessments that are science based.
If all the scientific information had been available and a consensus amongst scientists could be achieved that the impact on the environment is minimal, it would be possible to argue for a totally science based risk assessment process. There are many different ways in which policy on involving the public has evolved.
The Cartagena Protocol requires that countries engage their public in decision making both at the policy level and when considering individual applications for use of modern biotechnology. For countries with a history of involving their public in the decision making process this is not easy; for those not used to direct public involvement it may be much more difficult.
The Parties shall:
(a) Promote and facilitate public awareness, education and participation concerning the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms in relation to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. In doing so, the Parties shall cooperate, as appropriate, with other States and international bodies;
(b) Endeavour to ensure that public awareness and education encompass access to information on living modified organisms identified in accordance with this Protocol that may be imported.
The Parties shall, in accordance with their respective laws and regulations, consult the public in the decision-making process regarding living modified organisms and shall make the results of such decisions available to the public, while respecting confidential information in accordance with Article 21.