The statement was published on the occasion of the 'Codex Alimentarius Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology', meeting in Chiba/Japan (14-17 March). The objectives of the Task Force are to develop standards, guidelines or recommendations, as appropriate, for foods derived from biotechnologies or traits introduced into foods by biotechnological methods.
Together with the World Health Organization, FAO provides the secretariat to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is an intergovernmental body with 165 member countries. It protects the health of consumers, ensures fair practices in food trade and promotes the coordination of food standards.
FAO recognized that genetic engineering has the potential to help increase production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It could lead to higher yields on marginal lands in countries that today cannot grow enough food to feed their people, the agency said. FAO also pointed out that "there are already examples where genetic engineering is helping to reduce the transmission of human and animal diseases through new vaccines. Rice has been genetically engineered to contain pro-vitamin A (beta carotene) and iron, which could improve the health of many low-income communities."
Other biotechnological methods have led to organisms that improve food quality and consistency, or that clean up oil spills and heavy metals in fragile ecosystems.
Tissue culture has produced plants that are increasing crop yields by providing farmers with healthier planting material. Marker-assisted selection and DNA fingerprinting allow a faster and much more targeted development of improved genotypes for all living species. They also provide new research methods which can assist in the conservation and characterization of biodiversity.
However, FAO said, it is aware of the concern about the potential risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology that could have effects on human and animal health and the environment.
"Caution must be exercised in order to reduce the risks of transferring toxins from one life form to another, of creating new toxins or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another, which could result in unexpected allergic reactions. Risks to the environment include the possibility of outcrossing, which could lead, for example, to the development of more aggressive weeds or wild relatives with increased resistance to diseases or environmental stresses, upsetting the ecosystem balance. Biodiversity may also be lost, as a result of the displacement of traditional cultivars by a small number of genetically modified cultivars, for example."
FAO called for a science-based evaluation that would objectively determine the benefits and risks of each individual GMO. "The possible effects on biodiversity, the environment and food safety need to be evaluated, and the extent to which the benefits of the product or process outweigh its risks assessed. The evaluation process should also take into consideration experience gained by national regulatory authorities in clearing such products. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products and processes is also essential to ensure their continued safety to human beings, animals and the environment."
Investment in biotechnological research tends to be concentrated in the private sector and oriented towards agriculture in higher-income countries where there is purchasing power for its products, FAO said. "In view of the potential contribution of biotechnologies for increasing food supply and overcoming food insecurity and vulnerability, efforts should be made to ensure that developing countries, in general, and resource-poor farmers, in particular, benefit more from biotechnological research, while continuing to have access to a diversity of sources of genetic material. FAO proposes that this need be addressed through increased public funding and dialogue between the public and private sectors."
FAO assists its member countries, particularly developing countries, to reap the benefits derived from the application of biotechnologies through, for example, the network on plant biotechnology for Latin America and the Caribbean (REDBIO), which involves 33 countries. The Organization also assists developing countries to participate more effectively and equitably in international commodities and food trade. FAO provides technical information and assistance, as well as socio-economic and environmental analyses, on major global issues related to new technological developments.
The FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a permanent intergovernmental forum, is developing a Code of Conduct on Biotechnology aimed at maximizing the benefits of modern biotechnologies and minimizing the risks. The Code will be based on scientific considerations and will take into account the environmental, socio-economic and ethical implications of biotechnology. FAO is also working towards the establishment of an international expert committee on ethics in food and agriculture.
FAO emphasized, however, that the responsibility for formulating policies towards biotechnologies rests with the member governments themselves.