Powerful tools provided by science and technology in recent years have had a profound impact on the food and agriculture sector worldwide. Innovative production and processing methods have revolutionized many traditional systems, and the world's capacity to generate food products for its growing population has evolved at an unprecedented rate.
These developments have naturally been accompanied by radical changes in economic forces and social organization as well as in management of the earth's productive resources. Our very relationship with nature has been overturned by technolo-gical advances that enable us not only to determine genetic improvements through selective breeding but to modify living organisms and create novel genetic combinations in the quest for stronger and more productive plants, animals and fish. Understandably, such developments invariably give rise to controversy, and arguments for and against their implementation tend to be intense and emotionally charged.
For several years now, genetic engineering has generated plants with an innate resistance to pests and tolerance to herbicides. It has enabled the production of fast-growing and cold-resistant fish, for example, and cheaper, more effective vaccines against livestock diseases as well as livestock feeds that increase the animals' ability to absorb nutrients; and its application in forestry has been studied with a view to increasing useful traits in plantation trees such as poplars. Genetically modified crops that allow reductions in insecticides could have a positive effect in terms of environmental impact and farmers' production costs, although there has been insufficient time for ex postanalyses to be feasible.
Acknowledging the potential, and so far assumed, contributions of genetically modified products to world food production is not to ignore their possible risks with regard to food safety and unpredictable environmental hazards - the most commonly cited being the feared transfer of toxins or allergens and unintended negative effects on non-target species. Nor is it to mi-nimize the possibility of undesirable consequences that these products may have in the long term, such as diminished bio-diversity through the loss of traditional crops. Furthermore, 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 democratically managed to the benefit of the most needy or skewed to the advantage of specific groups that hold the vital political, economic and technological power. In the case of GMOs, it must be noted, the main beneficiaries to date have been the private sector technology developers and large-scale agricultural producers, mostly to be found in developed countries. To ensure that benefits are shared more fairly with developing countries and resource-poor farmers, the current system of intellectual property rights and similar barriers to the ready transfer of modern biotechnologies needs to be modified. Above all, research must be directed towards these countries and disadvantaged farmers, and ways must be found to guarantee that increased production benefits accrue to the poor and food-insecure.
The development of GMOs raises perhaps the broadest and most controversial array of ethical issues concerning food and agriculture today. 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. Countries producing genetically modified products must have a clear and responsive regulatory policy and authoritative body to ensure that scientific risk analysis is carried out and that all possible safety measures are taken through testing before the release of biotechnology products, and afterwards through close monitoring. More important, the human rights to adequate food and democratic participation in debate and eventual decisions concerning the new technologies must be respected, as must the right to informed choice.
The FAO Ethics Series is one of a number of recent initiatives undertaken by the Organization in order to raise public awareness and further the general understanding of ethical issues in food and agriculture. The present publication - the second in the series - has been written with a view to sharing the current knowledge of genetically modified organisms in relation to consumers, the safety of their food and consequent protection of their health, and environmental conservation. A distinction is made between GMOs that have been released on a commercial scale, most of which can therefore be considered to have entered the agrifood supply chain, and those that are now under development.
The scientific and policy bases for examining issues and passing judgement on genetically engineered products are necessarily evolving as rapidly as the pace of evolution in biotechnology. Regarding the safety of genetically modified foods and the implications for consumers' health, FAO continues to stress the importance of accurate risk management and effective risk communication, while optimistically pointing out the real prospects of solving major nutrition problems and even preventing food safety problems with specifically developed GMOs.
Modern biotechnologies are a possible but optional means of selective breeding, and further study is required to assess their associated risks and benefits. Furthermore, the credibility of claims made as a result of this process can only be ascertained if necessary economic, environmental and ethical safeguards are in place. Ultimately, if basic ethical considerations are heeded and the human rights mentioned above are realized, the international debate and subsequent decisions on GMOs will be influenced by consumers worldwide. As this publication states, by exercising their choice of whether or not to purchase a product, consumers have a hand in determining its success or failure on the market. If they reject a product, producers are bound to react accordingly.
FAO's ethics programme is a priority area for interdisciplinary action across its technical and normative divisions. Together with the catalytic role that FAO fills as a neutral forum, it is my hope that the knowledge and experience we bring to bear on this vital subject will stimulate and lend direction to what is currently a wide-ranging and often contentious global debate on ethical issues.