UN Explores Ethical Issues of Bioengineered Organisms

ROME, Italy, May 7, 2001 (ENS) - Genetically modified organisms such as foods and vaccines are not inherently good or bad, but can be used for good or ill, says Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"The benefits deriving from genetically modified organisms should be shared more fairly with developing countries and with resource poor farmers. Above all, ways must be found to guarantee that increased production benefits accrue to the poor and food insecure," he said.


FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf (Photo courtesy FAO)
Speaking Thursday on the release of the first two papers in a series on ethics in food and agriculture, Diouf said, "Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), like all the new technologies, are instruments that can be used for good and for bad in the same way that they can be either managed to the benefit of the most needy or skewed to the advantage of specific groups."

The FAO has set up an internal committee on ethics in food and agriculture to provide guidance and determine the scope of ethical issues the organization must address. "FAO is now addressing ethics in a more systematic way, and is giving higher visibility to the ethical dimensions of its work in an interdisciplinary manner across the various technical fields," FAO expert Margret Vidar points out.

"Perhaps the most egregious problem is the widespread bias against the hungry and the poor," states the first paper, "Ethical Issues in Food and Agriculture," which introduces the ethical questions and sets forth a scope of vision.


Ghanian women peel cassava tubers. Cassava is an essential part of the diet of more than half a billion people. (Photo courtesy FAO)
The goals of improved well being, protection of the environment and improved public health should be paramount in making decisions about the use of genetically modified organisms the authors say.

As part of its ethical formulation process, the FAO established the Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture to advise the Organization and to raise public awareness of ethical considerations associated with issues of food security for present and future generations and sustainable management of the earth's limited resources.

The panel includes scientists from Ethiopia, China, Cuba, France, Malaysia, Morocco, Norway and the United States, appointed for a four-year period. They met, for the first time, last September and will meet again in 2002.


The U.S. expert on the panel, Francisco Ayala, is professor of Biological Sciences and of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. Former President and Chair of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. (Photo courtesy UC Irvine)
In its report, the Panel of Eminent Experts cautiously supports the exploration and use of GMOs by developing countries. "FAO should support developing countries in increasing research and development related to socially useful and environment friendly biotechnologies, including - as appropriate - the possible development of certain GMOs," it says.

Conducting a comparative study of national regulations concerning biotechnology, including GMOs, and exploring the possibility and desirability of harmonizing such regulations would be useful, the experts recommend.

The panel notes with "much concern" that public research funding is being continually reduced, both at the national and the international level at a time "when new and powerful technologies are drastically increasing the efficiency of research, and public funding for non-commercial research is essential in order to develop, transfer and utilize appropriate biotechnologies."

The purpose of the second publication, entitled, "Genetically Modified Organisms, Consumers, Food Safety and the Environment," is to share the current knowledge of genetically engineered products in relation to consumers, including the safety of their food and protection of their health, and environmental conservation.


Annie, born March 3, 2000, is a clone of a pure bred Jersey calf whose cells were modified with genes for producing lysostaphin, a protein that kills Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, a leading cause of mastitis disease in dairy cows. She is the first transgenic cow clone engineered to resist mastitis, which costs the U.S. dairy industry $1.7 billion annually. (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
The paper seeks to unravel and explore the claims and counterclaims being made in the GMO debate from an ethical perspective, considering issues related to the ownership of the necessary tools to produce GMOs, the potential consequences of their use and the undesirable effects that their application could have, both now and in the future.

The publication advocates interaction and involvement of all stakeholders in the decision making process regarding GMOs. Modern biotechnology, if appropriately developed, could offer new and broad potential for contributing to food security, but the authors say, "It is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about GMOs, each application must be fully analyzed on a case-by-case study."

Diouf emphasized the importance of a cautious attitude towards bioengineered organisms, without ignoring possible benefits. "As scientific progress presents us with ever more powerful tools and seemingly boundless opportunities, we must exercise caution and ensure thorough ethical consideration of how these should be used," he said.

The first report of the Panel of Eminent Experts is online at: http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/003/X9600E/X9600E00.HTM

Biographies of the Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture http://www.fao.org/news/2001/010407-e.htm

The first two FAO ethics papers are online at: http://www.fao.org/ethics/ser_en.htm