During the process of development of any agricultural or food technology, there are always questions and concerns to be tackled at every stage, ranging from the yields of the product and economic gain to consumer safety and societal response. Questions such as "why is the particular product being developed?", "what are its uses?", and "who decides what is useful?" are important and need to be answered as transparently as possible.
This review of GMOs shows that the 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. At the same time, the speed of genetic change made possible by genetic engineering may represent a new potential impact on the biosphere. However, it is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about GMOs; each application must be fully analysed on a case-by-case basis. Through complete and transparent assessments of GMO applications, and recognition of their short- and long-term implications, the debate can be less contentious and more constructive.
During the relatively brief period that genetic engineering has existed, close scru-tiny of the research and commercialization process has proved to be beneficial in terms of raising important issues and improving our understanding.
Citizens have a direct interest in technological developments, yet there are obstacles to their participation in decision-making that must be acknowledged and overcome. The public has not been adequately informed about the application of gene technology to food production or the consequent potential impacts on consumers' 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.
Scientists, governments and the agrifood industry have now realized the need to inform the public about GMOs, yet there is relatively little information available to enable the lay person to make decisions. Widely communicated, accurate and objective assessments of the benefits and risks associated with the use of genetic technologies should involve all stakeholders. Even where access to information exists, this does not guarantee that the lay person will have sufficient knowledge and training to interpret and make use of the technical documents.
Experts have the ethical obligation to be proactive and to communicate in terms that can be understood by the lay person. Some professional associations have recognized this and have called for the education of the general public on genetic technologies and principles.
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.
Fora that enable citizens to voice their views can be a routine and integral part of analysing GMO issues and making decisions. National, regional and international fora need to be clearly identified and their respective roles clarified to provide efficient mechanisms for discussing specific issues, reaching relevant agreements and devising appropriate instruments for their implementation.
The right to adequate food, as understood today, carries with it obligations on the part of states to protect individuals' autonomy and capacity to participate in public decision-making fora, especially when other participants are more powerful, assertive or aggressive. These obligations can include the provision of public resources to ensure that those fora take place in a spirit of fairness and justice.