Ethics panel addresses biotechnology concerns
Biotechnology offers many alternatives to the production of GMOs, says the independent Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture. These alternatives should be chosen where GMOs present significant risks.
The panel notes that the commercialization of biotechnology, including GMOs, is currently being pursued mainly by major corporations, which, understandably, seek to maximize profits. "This is one of the reasons why the poorest and most vulnerable groups have not benefited from genetic engineering and are unlikely to do so unless important conditions are put in place," the report says.
The panel calls on FAO to support developing countries in increasing research and development related to socially useful and environment-friendly biotechnologies, including -- as appropriate -- the possible development of certain GMOs.
FAO should also emphasize the importance of investment of public resources in agricultural research, the panel says, and encourage the formation of research institutions in developing countries. The panelists called on FAO to encourage rich countries to fulfil their commitment to increase development assistance to 0.7 percent of their gross national product.
The panel was established by FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in 2000 to advise FAO on key ethical issues in food and agriculture and to help raise the level of public awareness on ethical considerations. The eight panel members come from all over the world and from fields of work ranging from human rights to genetics to law. (For biographies and photos of the eight panel members, click here)
The report resulted from the panel's first three-day meeting, held in Rome in late 2000. Among the issues discussed were basic ethical concerns, including the right to food, globalization, farmers' rights and environmental issues. (For the full report in pdf, click here (608kb))
Dr Diouf calls the report "at once measured and thought provoking", but underlines that the statements and conclusions are those of the panelists and are not necessarily shared by FAO and its members. He adds, "the points raised will make an important contribution to international discussion and public appreciation of the important global issues involved."
Regarding GMOs, he notes, "like all the new technologies, (they) are instruments that can be used for good and for bad in the same way that they can be either managed to the benefit of the most needy or skewed to the advantage of specific groups."
FAO and ethics
"FAO's ethics programme is a priority area for interdisciplinary action across our technical divisions," says Margret Vidar, secretary to the Panel.
Recently, FAO established an internal committee on ethics in food and agriculture to provide guidance and determine the scope of relevant ethical issues. The report and the panel's recommendations are important tools in this work.
"FAO is now addressing ethics in a more systematic way and is giving higher visibility to the ethical dimensions of its work in the various technical fields, from plant protection to food safety, in an interdisciplinary manner," Ms Vidar underlines.
As part of this work, FAO has just released two publications: Ethical issues in food and agriculture and Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment. The first in a new series dedicated to ethics in food and agriculture, the reports are based on the working papers for the first meeting of the panel. (For more about the two publications, click here).
The panel's term is four years, and it will meet again early in 2002. Until then, the members will remain in contact to discuss emerging issues. Some have offered to prepare working papers on topics such as the ethical implications of intellectual property rights, biotechnology research and development institutions in developing countries and harnessing new technologies for local needs.
3 May 2001
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