Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment

Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment

Explaining the effects of GMOs to lay members of the public: a priority

This article deals with ethical issues relating to Genetically Modified Organisms, biotechnology and food security.

The article outlines the ethical issues involved in this area as being about:

  • food safety: The foundation of consumers' concern about GMOs is food safety. Because of experiences with non-GMO food problems such as allergens, pesticide residues, microbiological contaminants and, most recently, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and its human counterparts, consumers are sometimes wary of the safety of foods produced with new technologies
  • environmental impact: The potential of GMOs to upset the balance of nature is another concern of the public. GMOs are novel products which, when released, may cause ecosystems to adjust, perhaps in unintended ways
  • perceived risks and benefits: in forming their views about GMOs, consumers weigh the perceived benefits of accepting a new technology against the perceived risks. Since practically none of the currently available or forthcoming plant and animal GMOs presents obvious benefits to consumers, they question why they should assume possible risks
  • transparency: Consumers have a legitimate interest in and right to information with regard to GMOs in agriculture. This begins with rules for the transparent sharing of relevant information and the communication of associated risks
  • accountability: Consumers may wish to be more involved in local, national and international debates and in policy guidance. At present, there are very few fora available to the public to discuss the wide range of issues relating to GMOs

The article concludes that:

  • GMO technology has the potential to affect a wide range of plant and animal products and could have many consequences. It also implies that the application of GMOs can extend beyond the food production function of agriculture
  • modern biotechnology, if appropriately developed, could offer new and broad potential for contributing to food security
  • it is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about GMOs; each application must be fully analysed on a case-by-case basis
  • citizens have a direct interest in technological developments, yet there are obstacles to their participation in decision-making that must be acknowledged and over-come. The public has not been adequately informed about the application of gene technology to food production or the consequent potential impacts on consumers's health and the environment. With the confusing array of claims, counter claims, scientific disagreement and misrepresentation of research that is present in the media, the public is losing faith in scientists and government
  • experts have the ethical obligation to be proactive and to communicate in terms that can be understood by the lay person
  • there need to be more opportunities enabling the exchange of information among scientists, corporate representatives, policy-makers and the public at large. Including members of the public on advisory committees set up for the formulation of laws, regulations and policies would help to ensure that their perspectives were fairly represented

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