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Conference 12 - Background

Public participation in decision-making regarding GMOs in developing countries: How to effectively involve rural people

1. Introduction

Very few issues have raised as much public discussion and controversy recently as the use of genetic modification in food and agriculture. According to Stone (2002): "It is rather remarkable that a process as esoteric as the genetic modification of crops would become the subject of a global war of rhetoric. Yet for the past few years Western audiences have been bombarded with deceptive rhetoric, spin, and soundbite science portraying the wonders- or horrors-of the new technology". For audiences in non-Western countries the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has also been the object of much debate and in some cases individual African countries have refused to accept food aid derived from GM crops.

Whereas there is no or little public concern about other biotechnologies used in food and agriculture, such as fermentation, use of molecular DNA markers, vegetative reproduction of crops and forest trees, embryo transfer and embryo/semen freezing in livestock or triploidisation and sex-reversal in fish, public acceptance of genetic modification and of GM food products is a major issue that cannot be ignored. For example, Marris (2004) concluded that one of the lessons to be learnt from studies of public attitudes to GM crops and foods was that "Public concerns need to be taken into account by all the operators of the industry, including R&D, marketing, commerce and distribution. Governments and international bodies also need to take these concerns into account when elaborating risk-related regulations and dealing with trade disputes".

One of the main aims for establishing this FAO Biotechnology Forum in March 2000 was to make a neutral platform available for people to exchange views and experiences on biotechnology in developing countries and to allow stakeholders to better understand and clarify the issues and concerns behind polarisation of the debate on agricultural biotechnology for developing countries. A total of 11 conferences have been hosted so far, each taking a clearly defined area of the debate (e.g. intellectual property rights, gene flow), relevant to agricultural biotechnology in developing countries, and discussing only that area for a limited amount of time. This e-mail conference is devoted to the subject of public participation in decision-making regarding GMOs for food and agriculture in developing countries, considering in particular how rural people can be effectively involved in the decision-making process.

Of the different food and agricultural sectors, GMOs are currently being commercially used in the crop, forestry and agro-industry sectors and are not commercially used in livestock or aquaculture. Their use is most substantial in the crop sector, where the GM crop species involved are ones that are extensively traded internationally. Although most developing countries are currently not involved in developing GMOs, their governments may nevertheless be required to regulate and develop policies about them because of the possibility of releasing imported GM varieties or importing "GM food" (food from GMOs (e.g. GM corn) or food that contains ingredients from GMOs (e.g. chocolate containing GM soybean)).

The conference focuses on the rural people in developing countries. Agricultural activities take place, by and large, in rural areas. Production of GMOs therefore directly impacts the people living in rural areas and their environment. In addition, people in rural areas have often more limited access to information than their counterparts in urban areas, due to e.g. remoteness, higher illiteracy rates and poorer infrastructure. These kinds of factors similarly have a negative impact on the ability of rural people to access and influence policy-makers and the decision-making process. Awareness about GMOs and involvement in decision-making regarding GMOs may therefore differ for rural and urban people.

Note, discussions in the conference will not consider the issues of whether GMOs (or GM food or labelling of GM food etc.) should or should not be used or the attributes, positive or negative, of GMOs themselves but instead how the rural people in developing countries can be effectively involved in the decision-making process regarding production, release or import of GMOs.

This Background Document aims to provide information that participants in the conference will find useful for the debate. Firstly, a brief overview of the current status regarding GMOs in food and agriculture is provided (Section 2), followed by discussion of the decision-making areas where the public could be involved (Section 3). A brief overview of international agreements that are relevant to the topic is then given (Section 4). Some of the specificities regarding information access and participation for people in rural areas in developing countries are then discussed (Section 5). The questions that should be addressed in the conference are listed in Section 6 and, finally, references to articles mentioned in the document and abbreviations are provided in Section 7.

2. Background and current status regarding GMOs in food and agriculture

A GMO is an organism into which one or more genes (called transgenes) have been introduced into its genetic material from another organism. The genes may be from a different kingdom (e.g. a bacterial gene introduced into plant genetic material), a different species within the same kingdom or even from the same species. Here, we will briefly look at the current status of GMOs in the crop, forestry, livestock, fisheries and agro-industry sectors.

a) GM crops

Estimates indicate that the global area planted with transgenic (GM) crops increased from 2 to 68 million hectares from 1996 to 2003 respectively (James, 2003). A small number of countries and crops have dominated the transgenic acreage statistics each year. Estimates for 2003 indicate that the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil and China accounted for 63, 21, 6, 4 and 4% respectively of the global transgenic acreage, and that GM soybean, maize, cotton and canola comprised 61, 23, 11 and 5% respectively of the 68 million hectares. As in other years, the vast majority (73%) of GM crops cultivated in 2003 were modified for herbicide tolerance, while 18% were modified for insect resistance and 8% were modified for both traits. Although few developing countries have released GM crop varieties so far, a preliminary analysis (Dhlamini et al., 2005) from FAO-BioDeC, an FAO database providing information on crop biotechnology products/techniques in use or in the pipeline in developing and transition countries, reveals that more than 20 countries are involved in GM crop research and application activities (covering experimentation (including laboratory or glasshouse research), field testing or commercialisation), including over 200 experimentation activities (where research on one trait in one crop in a single country is counted as one activity). The traits receiving most experimental attention, based on the number of activities, are pathogen resistance, quality traits, pest resistance, stress resistance, herbicide resistance and multiple resistance respectively.

b) GM forest trees

FAO is in the process of publishing a preliminary study reviewing the global status and trends in forest biotechnology, including genetic modification (FAO, 2004a). It indicates that forest GMO activities (mainly in the laboratory or in contained field tests) occur in at least 36 countries, with most activities occurring in North America (48%) and Europe (32%), followed by Asia (14%), Oceania (5%), South America (1%) and Africa (<1%). They are restricted largely to three genera (Populus, 47%; Pinus, 19%; Eucalyptus, 7%). Field trials of GM trees take place in 21 countries, the great majority in the United States. Approximately half of all reported GMO activities are related to methods development (e.g. gene stability, gene expression) or basic biological questions (e.g. functional genomics, tissue culture). Of the remaining activities, herbicide tolerance (13%), biotic resistance (12%), wood chemistry (9%) and fertility issues (6%) dominate the traits that groups studied most. The commercial release of GM trees has been reported only in China (ca. 1.4 million poplar trees in 2002). These releases followed two stages of field trials and required government agencies regulatory approval.

c) GM livestock

Although transgenic animals (especially mice) are used routinely for research purposes (particularly in the medical field), no GM animals have yet been released on the farm. Research has, however, been carried out on a wide range of traits of potential interest for farm animal populations, involving e.g. the growth hormone gene (to increase growth rates), the phytase gene (to reduce phosphorous emissions from pigs) or keratin genes (to improve the properties of wool in sheep). Compared to crops, genetic modification of livestock has proceeded at a much slower pace for a variety of reasons such as poor efficiency of the gene transfer techniques, high costs and low animal reproductive rates.

d) GM fish

There is much research and commercial interest in the production of GM fish. The trait of major interest is increased growth rate, although disease resistance and improved environmental tolerance are also being researched. GM fish from about 20 species, including carp, catfish, salmon and tilapia, have been produced for experimental purposes. Although applications have been made for the regulatory approval of GM fish for food purposes, none have yet been approved. In 2003, the first GM fish was released commercially - a fluorescent zebrafish (Danio rerio) sold as a pet.

e) GM micro-organisms

Recombinant DNA approaches have been used for genetic modification of bacterial, yeast and mould strains to promote expression of desirable genes, to hinder the expression of others, to alter specific genes or to inactivate genes so as to block specific pathways. For example, the first application of genetic modification for food was the approval in the United States in 1990 of a chymosin preparation, a solution containing chymosin, an enzyme used to curdle milk in the preliminary steps of cheese manufacture, derived from a GM bacteria (Escherichia coli K-12 containing the bovine prochymosin gene). It is estimated that at least 30 enzymes produced by GM micro-organisms are currently commercially available worldwide, many of which are used in the food industry. GM yeasts appropriate for brewing and baking applications have been approved for use (e.g. approval was granted in the United Kingdom for use of a GM yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) in beer production, containing a transferred gene from the closely related Saccharomyces diastaticus, allowing it to better utilise the carbohydrate present in conventional feedstocks). None of these GM yeasts are, however, used commercially.

3. At which points could the public be involved in the decision-making processes?

The overview of GMOs in Section 2 shows that they are being commercially produced in developing countries, albeit in a small number of countries. In addition, it is expected that more GM products will be produced in a greater number of developing countries in the future. In this Section, we will consider the main places in the decision-making process where the public could be involved.

a) National policy dialogues

In the light of the controversy about GMOs, some governments have engaged in national dialogues to assist them in their national policy making. A small number of countries have specifically developed national biotechnology policy documents (see e.g. here), and in some of these cases the public has been actively encouraged to participate in the process. For example, the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was established by the New Zealand government in May 2000 to look into and report on the issues surrounding genetic modification in New Zealand. In producing their report, the Commission undertook an extensive series of public consultations (including 15 public meetings held throughout the country, a public submission process resulting in more than 10,000 written submissions and formal hearings lasting 13 weeks). The report was submitted by the Commission in July 2001 and one of its recommendations was that the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology should develop a biotechnology strategy for New Zealand. The draft strategy document was made available by the Ministry on the World Wide Web and comments were invited from interested individuals. The final strategy document was then released in May 2003.

In the United States, a statement of policy on foods derived from new plant varieties was issued in 1992 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other statements on specific biotechnology matters have been issued periodically by the White House, United States Department of Agriculture, FDA and Environmental Protection Agency. By law, these agencies are required to solicit public comments on guidelines, regulations etc. This information is made available on the World Wide Web.

In other cases, no specific biotechnology policy document is being produced and the major impact of the national dialogue has been to inform policy makers about the positions, opinions and concerns of different stakeholders and about the extent of agreement and disagreement in their positions. Birner and Alcaraz (2004) reviewed five recent initiatives, organised in France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and by the European Commission, and showed that a wide range of methods have been used for such policy dialogues. For example, the German dialogue involved experts, government officials and representatives of 30 stakeholder organisations, whereas the Swiss initiative involved limited participation of interest groups and focused on a citizen panel of 28 people. The United Kingdom initiative instead involved a much wider audience, with an estimated 20,000 people attending several hundred workshops and with inputs also provided via 1200 letters or e-mails and over 36,000 feedback forms. Based on insights from these dialogues, Birner and Alcaraz (2004) made a series of nine recommendations regarding a policy dialogue for Africa, such as focusing on stakeholder organisations in the dialogue process and ensuring that all relevant stakeholder interests are represented in the dialogue.

b) Developing a regulatory framework for GMOs

As pointed out in FAO (2003), the majority of developing countries currently do not have a regulatory system for GMOs in place, although many are now being established with technical assistance and policy advice provided by a number of UN and non-UN organisations. Many of these activities, e.g. a UNEP-GEF project assisting 123 countries to develop a draft national biosafety framework (NBF), are related to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (discussed in Section 4), an important international agreement concerning viable GMOs (the term living modified organisms (LMOs) is used in the Protocol).

One of the key elements governments have to consider when developing a regulatory framework, concerns public involvement in the decision-making processes e.g. whether there should be public participation in the development of the regulatory framework. As part of the UNEP-GEF project, a series of six regional workshops were held between November 2002 and May 2003 which considered, inter alia, these issues. The synthesis report, summarising the deliberations and conclusions of these workshops, is a strong endorsement for public participation, as participants considered that public awareness, public education and public participation were needed in the establishment of a NBF, for the following nine reasons: "To provide for public feedback, comments and advice into the decision-making process; for transparency and accountability of the decision-making process; to protect the public interest and adequately reflect the interests of different groups; to enable involved parties to share the responsibility for, and have a sense of ownership of, the final decision; because it is part of the democratic process and of an ongoing global trend towards public involvement in decision-making; because there is an obligation under Article 23 of the Cartagena Protocol; to enable socio-economic and other non-scientific issues to also be taken into account; to inspire public trust and make the NBF workable and sustainable; to permit a pooling of resources" (UNEP-GEF, 2003). FAO has assisted a number of its member countries through biosafety capacity building projects, some of which (e.g. in Bolivia, Grenada and Paraguay) have adopted, or are adopting, a participatory approach to the drafting and revision of national biosafety regulations.

IDS (2003) considered some of the choices regarding public participation that governments might face when developing regulatory frameworks for GMOs, such as who should participate in the development and whether people are enabled to participate. The kinds of processes that then might be used include a) identifying key stakeholders b) ensuring adequate legal frameworks (rights to information, access to decision-making) are in place c) ensuring people are sufficiently informed about the issues to engage meaningfully in the process. The kinds of tools that might be used here include a) local and regional consultations to discuss issues and solicit views b) laws and resources to enable public participation and access to information c) decision trails showing how views will be carried forward, with follow-up explanations about how and why inputs have or have not been used.

c) Approval of individual GM products

Once a regulatory framework for GMOs is in place, requests for commercial approval of individual GMOs can be processed. The public can also be involved at this step. The regulatory framework may require that assessment of the potential human health and environmental risks be carried out prior to eventual approval, so these data might be made publicly available allowing the public to provide their comments. Concerning approval of individual cases, participants in the UNEP-GEF workshops (UNEP-GEF, 2003), in the context of individual applications for importation of LMOs, "pointed to the vital need to provide the public with access to the maximum amount of information, both the raw data received and a "translation" of the information in an understandable format. In that context, it was necessary to explain and justify why any information in an application was being withheld or labelled confidential. The decision making process needed to provide an entry point for consultation with the public, and provisions for taking into account feedback from groups of the public. That entry point could take a number of forms: e.g. a committee containing representatives of the public, feedback through a focal point, a formal process of submission of a decision to the public, etc. In addition, there had to be a recourse procedure for appeal of a decision, as well as access to justice".

IDS (2003) considered some of the choices regarding public participation that governments might face when implementing a regulatory framework for GMOs, such as how far to include people in decisions about a) the roles, duties and powers of responsible agencies b) mechanisms of reporting, public scrutiny and accountability c) the location and design of biosafety trials. The kinds of processes that then might be used include ensuring a) openness about applications for biosafety review and commercialisation b) openness about the purpose, location and design of biosafety trials c) opportunities for public comment. The kinds of tool that might be used here include public registers of GMO applications under review, with opportunities for public comment and obligations to respond to public comments.

Whether or not individual GM products should be approved falls under the broad umbrella of risk analysis, a discipline of key importance for regulating health and environmental risks. Risk analysis follows a structured approach comprising three distinct but closely linked components, risk assessment, risk management and risk communication, where the last component is relevant to public participation and public access to information. Following Codex Alimentarius, and as given in the FAO biotechnology glossary, risk assessment is defined as "a scientifically based process consisting of the following steps: (i) hazard identification, (ii) hazard characterization, (iii) exposure assessment, and (iv) risk characterization"; risk management as "the process, distinct from risk assessment, of weighing policy alternatives, in consultation with all interested parties, considering risk assessment and other factors relevant for the health protection of consumers and for the promotion of fair trade practices, and, if needed, selecting appropriate prevention and control options" and, thirdly, risk communication as "the interactive exchange of information and opinions throughout the risk analysis process concerning risks, risk-related factors and risk perceptions, among risk assessors, risk managers, consumers, industry, the academic community and other interested parties, including the explanation of risk assessment findings and the basis of risk management decisions".

In February 1998, a joint FAO/WHO expert consultation was held on the application of risk communication to food standards and safety matters, which identified the elements and guiding principles of risk communication, barriers to effective risk communication and strategies for effective risk communication (FAO, 1999). The consultation identified the following principles for effective risk communication:

i) Know the audience: Understanding the motivation, opinions, concerns and feelings of the individuals and groups that make up the audience and designing risk communication messages to address these issues improve communications. Listening to all interested parties is an important aspect of risk communication. ii) Involve the scientific experts: These experts should be involved to the extent that they can provide information on the risk assessment process and the results, including the assumptions and subjective judgement, so that risk managers have complete information and understanding of the risk. iii) Establish expertise in communication: Communication expertise is important to the conveyance of the appropriate risk message in a manner that is clear, understandable and informative. Experts in this field should be involved in the process of communication from the very start. iv) Be a credible source of information: Information from a credible source is more likely to be accepted by the public. Consistent messages received from multiple sources lend credibility to the risk message. To be credible the public must recognize competence, trustworthiness, fairness and lack of bias. In addition, the communications specialist must be factual, knowledgeable, expert, aware of the public welfare, responsible, and truthful and have a good track record. Effective communications acknowledge current issues and problems, are open in their content and approach, and are timely. v) Share responsibility: There are multiple players in the communication process, including regulatory officials, industry, consumers and the media. Each has a specific role to play and by sharing this responsibility, each can do their part to assure effective communications. vi) Differentiate between science and value judgement: It is essential to separate fact from values in considering development of a risk communication message. vii) Assure transparency: To ensure public acceptance of risk messages, the process must be open and available for scrutiny by interested parties. viii) Put the risk in perspective: By examining the risk in terms of the benefits and by comparing with other more familiar risks the risk can be put in perspective. However this must not be done in a manner that may be construed by the public as using a comparison to diminish the importance of the risk issue at hand.

d) Post-release monitoring

After individual GM products have been approved, the regulatory framework may include provisions for post-release monitoring of the impacts of GMOs, where feedback from the public, especially those in rural areas where they are produced, would be of particular importance.

4. International agreements/guidelines concerning public participation in decision-making and GMOs

In recent years, the importance of public participation in decision-making has been increasingly recognised by policy makers. For example, Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted by over 170 countries in 1992, states "Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided".

According to a recent study published by the FAO Legal Office (Glowka, 2003), "One of the most useful legal tools for realizing the potential and avoiding the risks of modern biotechnology may be legally requiring public participation in the policy-making and regulatory decision-making processes. Opening decision-making processes up to the public may help to ensure that decision makers have the best information at their disposal in order to evaluate the benefits and risks that modern biotechnology could present. Public participation could also help to ensure better transparency and accountability in decision-making". The study reviewed international, regional and a selection of national laws related to GMOs, also considering the topic of public participation. Here, the study suggests that many international legal instruments address the public's access to information in relation to GMOs while few specifically address public participation in decision-making about GMOs.

Three recently adopted international instruments of special relevance to public participation in decision-making about GMOs are discussed below:

a) Aarhus Convention

The Aarhus Convention (i.e. the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters) was adopted in June 1998 in Aarhus, Denmark and it entered into force in October 2001. It contains three broad themes: public access to information (covering the obligation on public authorities to respond to public requests for information and other obligations relating to providing environmental information, such as collection, updating, public dissemination etc.), public participation (setting out minimum requirements for public participation in various categories of environmental decision-making) and public access to justice on environmental matters.

The Convention gives special treatment to decisions and to information pertaining to GMOs, which are specifically mentioned in the preamble to the Convention. In addition, Article 6 (concerning public participation in decision-making by public authorities on whether to permit or license specific activities) specifically includes a paragraph (nr. 11) stating that "Each Party shall, within the framework of its national law, apply, to the extent feasible and appropriate, provisions of this article to decisions on whether to permit the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms into the environment".

Much effort has been devoted to applying the Convention to the topic of the deliberate release of GMOs. After the Convention was adopted, a task force and then a working group on GMOs was established, their work resulting in the first meeting of the Parties to the Convention adopting in October 2002 the "Guidelines on access to information, public participation and access to justice with respect to genetically modified organisms", recommending their use by all Parties as a non-binding, voluntary instrument. At the meeting, a new working group on GMOs was also established, which held 4 meetings in 2003-2004. Its task has been to explore the options for a legally binding approach to further developing the application of the Convention in the field of GMOs, including through possible instruments and to develop selected options for consideration and possible decision or adoption by the Parties at their second ordinary meeting (to be held on 25-27 May 2005 in Kazakhstan).

So far, 30 countries have ratified the Convention, many of which are countries with economies in transition. The UNECE is one of five regional commissions of the UN and has 55 Member countries from North America, Western, Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Although a UNECE convention, it has a global significance as it is also open to all non-UNECE States which are members of the UN.

b) Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity

The Cartagena Protocol was adopted in January 2000, entered into force in September 2003 and has been ratified by 111 countries so far (16 December 2004). Its objective is "to contribute to ensuring an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on transboundary movements". Article 23 of the Protocol specifically addresses the issue of public awareness and participation, stating "The Parties shall: (a) Promote and facilitate public awareness, education and participation concerning the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms in relation to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. In doing so, the Parties shall cooperate, as appropriate, with other States and international bodies; (b) Endeavour to ensure that public awareness and education encompass access to information on living modified organisms identified in accordance with this Protocol that may be imported. The Parties shall, in accordance with their respective laws and regulations, consult the public in the decision-making process regarding living modified organisms and shall make the results of such decisions available to the public, while respecting confidential information in accordance with Article 21. Each Party shall endeavour to inform its public about the means of public access to the Biosafety Clearing-House". Public awareness and participation will be among the main issues to be addressed at the second meeting of the Conference of the Parties (to be held on 30 May to 3 June 2005 in Canada).

c) Codex principles on risk analysis

The Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission is an intergovernmental body with 169 member countries that sets food safety and agricultural trade standards. It has devoted considerable attention to the safety evaluation of GM foods. For example, in 1999 the Commission established the ad hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology to consider the health and nutritional implications of such foods. It completed its work and the Commission established a new biotechnology task force in 2004, which should submit its final report to the Commission in 2009.

At its 26th session, held in Rome in summer 2003, the Commission adopted guidelines that lay out broad general principles intended to make the analysis and management of risks related to GM foods uniform across Codex's members. Considering risk communication, the "Principles for the risk analysis of foods derived from modern biotechnology" state: "Effective risk communication is essential at all phases of risk assessment and risk management. It is an interactive process involving all interested parties, including government, industry, academia, media and consumers. Risk communication should include transparent safety assessment and risk management decision-making processes. These processes should be fully documented at all stages and open to public scrutiny, whilst respecting legitimate concerns to safeguard the confidentiality of commercial and industrial information. In particular, reports prepared on the safety assessments and other aspects of the decision-making process should be made available to all interested parties. Effective risk communication should include responsive consultation processes. Consultation processes should be interactive. The views of all interested parties should be sought and relevant food safety and nutritional issues that are raised during consultation should be addressed during the risk analysis process".

5. Information, communication and participation of the rural people in developing countries

This e-mail conference focuses on the people living in rural areas of developing countries - the farmers, their families, their neighbours, the landless labourers etc. - and how to effectively involve them in the decision-making processes regarding GMOs. In order to participate, they need, however, to be able to access information about GMOs. They also need to be able to provide input into the decision-making process, if allowed to do so, through appropriate communication channels. As described in Section 3, their input could potentially be sought at a number of different stages - during national policy dialogues, in development of a regulatory framework for GMOs, in considering applications for approval of individual GMOs and in monitoring the impacts of GMOs after their release. Here, we will briefly consider some topics (literacy, access to ICTs (information and communication technologies)) as well as communication approaches relevant to this issue.

The annual Human Development Report (UNDP, 2004) shows that the adult literacy rate (defined as "the percentage of people ages 15 and above who can, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement related to their everyday life") is 77% in developing countries (and just 53% in the 49 least developed countries). Classified by developing country region, literacy rates are 90, 89, 63, 63 and 58% in East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab States, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia respectively. There are also gender differences regarding adult literacy rates. For females they are 88% of those of males in developing countries (and this ratio is 70% in the least developed countries). Again, by the five regions given above, the ratios of female to male literacy are 91, 98, 70, 79 and 67% respectively. Literacy is obviously closely linked to school attendance and UNDP (2004) shows that the combined gross enrolment ratio for primary, secondary and tertiary schools (i.e. the number of students enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education, regardless of age, as a percentage of the population of official school age for the three levels) is 60% in developing countries (and 43% in the least developed countries), compared to 87% in OECD countries.

In recent years, ICTs (i.e. the telephone, radio, video and Internet) have become increasingly important for accessing and exchanging information. However, there are tremendous global inequalities in use of ICTs. UNDP (2004) shows that whereas over half the people in OECD countries have a mainline telephone, nearly 60% have a cellular phone and nearly 40% have access to the Internet, the corresponding figures for developing countries are 10, 10 and 4%. Furthermore, among 1,000 people in the 49 least developed countries, an average of only 7 have a mainline telephone, 10 have a cellular phone and 3 have access to the Internet. By developing country region, there are again substantial differences in these three parameters, ranging from 166, 191 and 81 respectively in Latin America and the Caribbean down to 15, 39 and 10 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Reflecting on the subject of this e-mail conference, these figures mean that whereas a country like New Zealand, where almost half of the population has access to the Internet, can theoretically solicit and receive inputs from a large proportion of the country's population concerning GMOs using the World Wide Web, this is not a realistic option in countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger where only 0.1-0.2% of the population has access to the Internet.

This conference focuses on the rural people in developing countries, the people who make up the great majority of the world's hungry (FAO, 2004b). Within developing countries, there is a wealth gap between urban and rural areas, which persists and seems even to be widening, and the rural-urban divide tends also to be reflected in education and health indicators. The incidence of illiteracy is higher (often far higher) in rural than in urban areas. This large rural-urban gap in illiteracy rates applies both to men and women. In addition, women in rural (but also in urban) areas have higher illiteracy rates than men (IFAD, 2001). Recent results from a survey of 21 African countries also highlight the substantial disparities in primary schooling between urban and rural areas, in favour of urban dwellers (Mingat, 2003).

The term "digital divide" has been used to describe the discrepancy between people who have access to, and the resources to use, ICTs and those who don't. This may be due to factors such as lack of infrastructure, resources and investment, high costs of connectivity and low levels of technological skills, education and literacy. Within individual countries, Internet users tend to be young, male, better educated and wealthier and are predominantly urban and located in certain regions (UNDP, 2001). Some specific examples of rural-urban differences are also highlighted in the same report, where "In China the 15 least connected provinces, with 600 million people, have only 4 million Internet users-while Shanghai and Beijing, with 27 million people, have 5 million users. In the Dominican Republic 80% of Internet users live in the capital, Santo Domingo. And in Thailand 90% live in urban areas, which contain only 21% of the country's population". Most of the estimated one billion people who have not benefited from the transformation of global information systems are the rural poor, a reality which has given rise to the term "rural digital divide". The advent of ICTs has served only to widen the gap between the rural poor and others who do have access to such technologies. FAO and its partners are working on an integrated set of activities to bridge the rural digital divide by strengthening human and institutional capacities to harness information and knowledge more effectively.

While lack of literacy or access to ICTs may be obstacles to participation, appropriate communication strategies should be used to ensure that people that are illiterate or unable to access ICTs can be provided with good information about GMOs as well as be represented in the decision-making process.

Special attention has to be given to the relevant knowledge and information needs of rural people related to GMOs (e.g. whether related to production, marketing or transport etc. of GMOs). Appropriate communication approaches and methods should then be selected to properly reflect the specificities and characteristics (language etc.) of the rural audience involved. For example, the Communication for Development approach, integrating local and modern media, can help in planning and implementing appropriate communication strategies and activities based on the knowledge and information needs of the rural stakeholders.

6. Questions to be addressed in this e-mail conference

This conference is devoted to the subject of public participation in decision-making regarding GMOs for food and agriculture in developing countries, considering in particular how rural people can be effectively involved in the decision-making process. The questions that participants should address in the conference are:

a) What priority should governments give to involving the rural people in decision-making regarding GMOs in developing countries?

b) In which situations is it most important to include the rural people in decision-making regarding GMOs in developing countries?

c) How can public participation opportunities be extended to groups in rural communities who are more difficult to reach or who have less access to communication channels (e.g., women, subsistence farmers)?

d) Should specific considerations be given to involving indigenous communities in decision-making regarding GMOs? If so, how can this best be achieved?

e) What is the best medium (e.g. newspaper, radio, Internet etc.) for rural people in developing countries to access quality information about GMOs, that will allow them to participate effectively in the decision-making process?

f) Which mechanisms can be used to ensure that relevant and reliable information/content is provided by the above media?

g) What are the main information and communication needs of the rural people related to GMOs? How can local capacity be built to respond to these needs? What are the most appropriate approaches to respond to these needs?

h) What is the best medium for rural people in developing countries to provide their inputs, if requested, to the decision-making processes regarding GMOs?

i) How should local languages of the rural people be dealt with in a public participation exercise?

j) Who can best represent the interests of the rural people in stakeholder discussions?

k) Involving the public in decision-making processes can be costly. Who should pay?

l) How important, implementable and relevant are the currently available international instruments relating to public participation and GMOs (see Section 4)?

m) Concerning requests for approval of individual GM products, what kind of information should it be possible to withhold from public disclosure?

n) Can certain public participation activities be organised on a regional basis in developing countries instead of at the national level?

o) Is public participation regarding GMOs in developing countries more important for some food and agriculture sectors (crop, forestry, livestock, aquaculture and agro-industry) than others?

NB: When submitting messages (which should not exceed 600 words), participants are requested to ensure that their messages address one or more of the above questions. Before sending a message, members of the Forum are requested to have a look at the Rules of the Forum and the Guidelines for Participation in the E-mail Conferences. Subscribers receive them when joining the Forum, and they can also be found at the FAO Biotechnology Forum website. One important rule is that participants are assumed to be speaking in their personal capacity, unless they explicitly state that their contribution represents the views of their organisation.

7. References and abbreviations

Birner, R. and G. Alcaraz. 2004. Policy dialogues on genetically modified crops in Europe: Insights for African policy dialogues on biotechnology. Second session of the African Policy Dialogues on Biotechnology, Harare, Zimbabwe, 20-21 September 2004.

Dhlamini, Z., Spillane, C., Moss, J.P., Ruane, J, Urquia, N. and A. Sonnino. 2005. Status of research and application of crop biotechnologies in developing countries - A preliminary assessment

FAO, 1999. The application of risk communication to food standards and safety matters. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation, Rome, 2-6 February 1998. FAO Food and Nutrition Paper 70.

FAO, 2003. Regulating GMOs in developing and transition countries. Background Document to Conference 9 of the FAO Biotechnology Forum, 28 April - 1 June 2003.

FAO, 2004a. Preliminary review of biotechnology in forestry, including genetic modification. Forestry Genetic Resources Working Paper 59. In preparation.

FAO, 2004b. The state of food insecurity in the world 2004.

Glowka, L. 2003. Law and modern biotechnology: Selected issues of relevance to food and agriculture. FAO Legislative Study 78.

IDS, 2003. Public participation and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. A review for DFID and UNEP-GEF.

IFAD, 2001. Rural poverty report 2001.

James, C. 2003. Preview: Global status of commercialized transgenic crops. ISAAA Briefs No. 30.

Marris, C. 2004. Issues concerning public awareness and attitudes towards genetically modified bananas and tropical fruits. Third Session of the Intergovernmental Group on Bananas and Tropical Fruits, Puerto de la Cruz, Spain, 22-26 March 2004.

Mingat, A. 2003. Magnitude of social disparities in primary education in Africa: Gender, geographical location, and family income in the context of Education for All (EFA). UNICEF-World Bank conference, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 25-27 June 2003.

Stone, G.D. 2002. Both sides now: Fallacies in the genetic modification wars, implications for developing countries, and anthropological perspectives. Current Anthropology, 43, 611-630.

UNDP, 2001. Human Development Report 2001.

UNDP, 2004. Human Development Report 2004.

UNEP-GEF, 2003. Synthesis report of the subregional workshops on: Risk assessment and management systems and public awareness, education and participation November 2002 to May 2003. UNEP-GEF Project on Development of National Biosafety Frameworks.

ABBREVIATIONS: FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; GEF = Global Environment Facility; GM = Genetically modified; GMOs = Genetically modified organisms; ICTs = Information and communication technologies; IDS = Institute of Development Studies; IFAD = International Fund for Agricultural Development; LMOs = Living modified organisms; NBF = National biosafety framework; OECD = Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; UN = United Nations; UNDP = United Nations Development Programme; UNECE = United Nations Economic Commission for Europe UNEP = United Nations Environment Programme; WHO = World Health Organization.

The FAO Working Group on Biotechnology expresses its appreciation to Mario Acunzo, Janice Albert and Edna Einsiedel for their comments on an earlier draft of this document.

FAO, 17 December 2004.

Join the Forum


Conference 12 of the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture was entitled "Public participation in decision-making regarding GMOs in developing countries: How to effectively involve rural people". It ran from 17 January to 13 February 2005. The Summary Document of the conference (12 pages) provides a summary of the main arguments and concerns discussed during the conference.

Executive Summary

The rural people in developing countries are often far removed from many important decision-making processes. Production and consumption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a topical issue and could impact on socio-cultural systems of rural populations in developing countries. Involving the rural people in decision-making on GMOs was discussed during this moderated e-mail conference hosted by the FAO Biotechnology Forum from 17 January to 13 February 2005. Over 500 people subscribed to the conference and 116 messages were posted, from 70 people living in 35 different countries. Half of the messages were from people in developing countries.

There was broad agreement that citizens, including rural people, should be involved in decision-making when it is likely to impact on them, but opinions on the degree and nature of the suggested participation differed. It was proposed that participation of the rural people could usually be indirect, through representatives they had chosen. It was felt that effective participation depended on access to unbiased and comprehensive information on the nature and consequences of GMOs. This information would have to be adapted to the needs and capacities of the various groups of rural people and their representatives in order for it to be helpful. Once available, the information would have to be communicated effectively. Numerous channels of communication were suggested and the importance of extension services, radio and use of local languages was particularly emphasised. Many participants complained that misinformation abounded (both for and against GMOs) and some were quite sceptical that a real public participation exercise might take place on this issue and, if it did, that its outcomes would have any impact. It was suggested that the costs of involving the rural populations in decision-making might be shared between the government and other relevant stakeholders. International agreements were regarded as being useful, but concern was expressed that commitments to these agreements might compromise the outcomes of an eventual national debate on GMOs.


The conference is now finished. All messages posted during the conference are available placed here, by subject and by date, with one webpage per date

They can also be retrieved by email and as monthly archives, providing messages posted in January (messages numbered 1-68) and February (numbers 69-118). All 118 messages are also available in a single webpage.

** Opening message from Moderator (14/1/05)

By subject (in order of posting):

1.Questions 6a - 6e in the Background Document
2.Rural people in developing world - Different profiles
3.Why involve the rural people on the issue of GMOs
4.Why should the public be involved in the decision making processes regarding GMOs?
5.Farmers perspective
6.What the rural people need to know
7.Hopes from the conference
8.Public participation - African societies
9.Prioritising rural people - Education - Radio
10.Development of a national policy for biotechnology
13.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
14.Contribution from West Bengal
15.Re: Why should the public be involved...
16.Re: Why involve the rural people on the issue of GMOs
17.Extension system
18.Questions 6f - 6j in the Background Document
19.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
20.Aarhus Convention
21.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
22.Extension service // Plain language movement
23.Enjoying the discussion
24.Factual information essential
25.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
26.Contribution from New Zealand
27.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
28.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
29.From Zambia
30.Farmer participation - Cuba/Guatemala/Mexico
31.The main information needs of the rural people related to GMOs
32.Weakness of local people to influence
33.Information flow and impediments to skilling
34.Kenyan contribution
35.Challenge of goverments in involving rural citizens
36.Costs // International legal instruments
37.Provide sound information // Extension // Simple language
38.Thoughts from the perspective of a development communicator
39.The rural people need information, education
40.Involved vs. consulted // Educating the public
41.Rural farmers - good barometers for the usefulness of a policy regarding release of GM crops
42.Involving the rural public - Bahamas
43.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
44.Re: Rural farmers - good barometers for the usefulness...
45.The consultation process
46.Sceptical towards public participation regarding GMOs
47.Re: Why should the public be involved...?
48.The challenge of creating awareness // Democracy // Providing unbiased-objective information
49.Leave it to the experts // Getting the public to decide
50.Information for farmers should be relevant to farming
51.Guiding questions - Malawi
52.Ideas for risk communication
53.Extension: Transfer of Technology and participatory models
54.Organizing regional groups // Representing rural populations
55.Why and how to involve the rural people: Eritrea
56.Public GM debates can take different forms
57.Do we have a legitimate convenor at the country level?
58.Questions 6.m - 6.o in the Background Document
59.Why public participation?
60.How should the public be involved?
61.Re: Kenyan contribution
62.Listen to the voices of the rural people
63.Contribution from Iran
64.GMO adoption as a multi-disciplinary concern
65.The rural people should be involved
66.Channels and decision-making / Experts and democracy / Messengers and the message
67.Re: Why public participation?
68.Regional organisation of the debates
69.Public participation - vast power asymmetries
70.Grassroots involvement extension methodologies
71.The important role of the consumer movement - Consumers International
72.Capacity building using a science based approach
73.Public participation - Fiji
74.Information, transparency and on an ethical basis
75.Re: Capacity building using a science based approach
76.Pertinent points on this subject
77.Re: Pertinent points on this subject
78.Experiences from the UK
79.Re: Pertinent points on this subject
80.'Knowledge is power' and 'power is knowledge'
81.Who pays for the public involvement in decision-making
82.How far should the rural public be involved
83.Re: Who pays for the public involvement in decision-making
84.Public involvement should not be aimed for a Yes/No answer
85.The Cartagena Protocol and public participation
86.Views from Cuba
87.Relevant and reliable information
88.Choice, information and representation, yes, but focus on the right issues
89.Indigenous people
90.Modelling the farmer making adoption decisions in a social vacuum
91.Questions 6a to 6f: Fiji
92.Leave the decisions on biosafety to the experts and national regulatory bodies
93.Re: Choice, information and representation, yes...
94.Re: Choice, information and representation, yes...
95.Re: Choice, information and representation, yes...
96.Re: Modelling the farmer making adoption decisions in a social vacuum
97.Contribution from Madagascar
98.GMOs and decision-making in Africa
99.Rural people must be consulted and given the right information
100.The need for independent oversight of GMO introduction
101.Bottom-top or top-bottom approach
102.Re: The need for independent oversight of GMO introduction
103.Involving rural people at household/farm or national level
104.Listening to women's voices in GMO decision-making
105.Do as the developed world does
106.Contribution from Nigeria
107.How to best extend opportunities for participation to rural groups
108.Role of indigenous peoples
109.Views from Egypt
110.Re: The need for independent oversight of GMO introduction
111.GMOs - The rural people of Nigeria
112.Effective risk communication
113.Media approaches
114.Re: Choice, information and representation, yes...
115.Why such a hurry?
116.Why public participation // Citizen panels

** Closing message from Moderator (14/2/05)

By date:

The conference begins on 17 January and the last day for sending messages for posting is 13 February 2005.

Archives January 2005
















Archives February 2005
















Email Archives:

All messages posted during the conference will be stored and can be retrieved. The messages are stored in monthly files. To retrieve them, follow instructions below. The log files will be sent to you in return as a single e-mail message. Note: you must have joined the Forum and subscribed to Conference 12 (which uses biotech-room4) to access the e-mail archives.

To get all messages posted in Conference 12 during January 2005, send an e-mail message to [email protected] leaving the subject blank and entering the one-line text message as follows:

send listlog/biotech-room4.jan2005

Note: lower case letters as shown here, and not upper case letters, must be used. No other text should be added to the message (e.g., mail signature).

To get all messages posted in Conference 12 during February 2005, send an e-mail message to [email protected] leaving the subject blank and entering the following text:

send listlog/biotech-room4.feb2005