Despite tension on both sides of the Atlantic over genetically modified foods, scientists in the US bring a note of optimism - and common sense - to the debate, reporting this week that, for the first time, parties on both sides of the controversy are coming together to set industry-wide safety standards.
Led by researchers at the University of Minnesota, the Safety First Initiative brings together representatives of business, science, public interest, environmental and consumer organisations. In a commentary to be published in the June 2003 issue of Nature Biotechnology, University of Minnesota professors Anne Kapuscinski, Lawrence Jacobs and others describe the formation of working groups to set standards for building human and environmental safety into the entire development process for two classes of genetically modified organisms (GMOs): fish modified for increased production in fish farms and plants modified to produce pharmaceuticals.
The group hopes to see such standards become the basis for regulation of GMO safety, much as general food safety is now regulated and monitored, Jacobs said.
The Safety First Initiative comes in response to well-publicised battles over the safety of GMO food. European unease has slowed American exports of GMO crops, which are now the focus of a battle in the World Trade Organisation.
In the United States, consumer and public interest organisations that doubt the safety of GMO products are facing off against businesses that are intent on recouping huge investments in GMOs and fending off liability claims and losses from product failures.
"We need a new approach to governing biotechnology that breaks free of the polarised debate and regulatory stalemate," said Kapuscinski, a professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology and first author of the commentary. "This initiative is building a rare and extraordinary convergence among previously acrimonious parties in the agricultural biotechnology debate."
The initiative's executive advisory board and steering committee are organising working groups to draft standards in four categories - safety criteria setting, safety verification, follow-up and safety leadership - to apply throughout the industry. Kapuscinski and Jacobs emphasised that the process will be "open and transparent". Kapuscinski said the Safety First Initiative is modelled after efforts by such industries as steel, railroad and aircraft manufacturing to improve safety by drawing up standards with input from diverse groups and incorporating the standards into government regulations.
"This initiative represents a paradigm shift," said Jacobs, a professor of political science. "We're trying to change the way people think. Safety will be built into the initial genetic constructs, and there will be biosafety inspectors certified by a professional board and overseen by the government."
The working groups will set standards for environmental safety of the GMO organisms, as well as human safety, Kapuscinski and Jacobs said. The groups will draw on previous research to avert such adverse outcomes as allergic reactions in human consumers and the extinction of native fish populations by GMO fish.
The Nature Biotechnology commentary, "Making 'safety first' a reality for biotechnology products," resulted from the collaboration of - among others - Charles S. Johnson, former executive vice president of DuPont, John Woodhouse, former CEO of SYSCO, Margaret Mellon, programme director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute, Consumers Union, former US Rep. Tim Penny, and Vernon Ruttan, Regents Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.