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.
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.
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.
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.
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