Food safety, the environment and GMOs are linked in the minds of consumers who, through their purchasing, will play a pivotal role in influencing decisions regarding the future of this technology. A number of consumers' concerns can be classified according to the following six issues:
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. The approaches being taken by governments to ensure the safety of GMOs are discussed in the sections under Risk analysis.
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. There is also concern about the possibility that genetic "pollution" will result from outcrossing with wild populations. As with non-GMOs, an issue is whether pre-release testing (especially when limited to laboratories or computer models) is an adequate safeguard for the environment or whether post-release monitoring is also necessary. The extent of post-release monitoring needed to protect ecosystems, especially with long-lived species such as forest trees, becomes an ethical as well as a technical issue. The current understanding of the environmental impact of GMOs is reviewed in the relevant chapter.
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. It is said that consumers take the risks while the producers (or the suppliers or companies) reap the benefits. The science-based methods used to assess risks, together with their relationships with risk management and risk communication, are discussed in the chapter GMOs and human health.
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. Science-based risk analysis seeks to enable experts to make decisions that minimize the probability of hazards in the food supply system and the environment. Consumers, however, may also wish for more transparency to protect their right to exercise informed consent on their own. An often-discussed set of means intended to protect these rights is the labelling of products, whether or not they are derived from GMOs. Informed consent and labelling are also discussed in the chapter GMOs and human health.
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. A shortage of fora can, understandably, lead to advocates concerned with one aspect of GMOs, such as environmental impact, pushing their concerns into a forum set up for another aspect, such as labelling. A related issue is how to bring the private sector transparently into public fora and, subsequently, how to hold public and private sector agencies accountable.
Equity. So far, the development of GMOs in agriculture has mainly been oriented towards cost-reduction at the farm level, primarily in developed countries. Societies have ethical standards that acknowledge the importance of ensuring that those who cannot satisfy their basic food needs receive adequate means to do so. Ethical analysis can consider the moral responsibility of societies, communities and individuals to ensure that economic growth does not lead to an ever-widening gap between the poor majority and the wealthy few. When appropriately integrated with other technologies for the production of food, other agricultural products and services, GMOs may, among other biotechnologies, offer significant potential for assisting in meeting the human population's needs in the future. An ethically salient issue that then emerges is how the development and use of GMOs in agriculture can be oriented towards improving the nutrition and health of economically poor consumers, especially in developing countries.