GMOs can feed a growing global population, but after two decades of use, they are still controversial and surrounded by fear. (Photo: Shutterstock)

How should we regulate GMOs?

Regulation of GMOs must accommodate both scientific developments and public perception of the risks associated with biotechnology.

Food safety is a controversial topic, especially when it comes to the issue of risks associated with genetically modified organisms.

The development of biotechnology has opened new possibilities for plant breeding and food production, which results in novel foods appearing on the market.

Organisms that have their genetic material altered by the use of modern biotechnology are called genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified (GM) food is of major concern to consumers and politicians in terms of public acceptance of such food.

Read More: A new GMO technique that organic farmers will love

Existing law is unclear

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Do you want to hear more about GMO regulation?

If you live in Denmark, then you can take part in the Book a Scientist Scheme, part of the Danish Science Festival.

Artem Anyshchenko is one of the scientists taking part in the scheme, where schools, local interest groups, university associations, or simply a group of friends can "book a scientist" to come and give a presentation on their research.

You can book a free presentation from Artem from Arpil 3rd to be held during Danish Science Week, 24th to 30th Arpil.

Read more: Danish scientists go back to school


The marketing of GM food is a result of the development in plant breeding and biotechnology.

Scientific advancements have left the governments all over the world to follow up with relevant rules and regulations.

EU regulation on GMOs, in particular, has been unable to keep up with new discoveries in the field of biotechnology. As a result, a significant degree of legal uncertainty makes the law itself unclear and ineffective.

Read More: Can't agree on harmfulness of GMO maize

Need to consider socio-economic factors

Despite the rapid development of biotechnology, the costs and benefits of GMOs are still an issue wrapped up in uncertainty.

Framed as a social problem, the question of risks associated with GMOs goes far beyond technical issues, bringing about other risk factors generally referred to as socio-economic considerations.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a supplement protocol to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for example, declares that the parties, in reaching a decision on import under the protocol or under its domestic measures implementing the protocol, may take into account “socio-economic considerations arising from the impact of living modified organisms on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.”

Risks to health and the environment associated with GMOs traditionally include the risks of releasing of organisms that have never existed in nature before and cannot be recalled, pollution of the gene pool of cultivated crops, and pollution of off-farm organisms.

Among the broad scope of socio-economic risks associated with GMOs, there are, inter alia, a perceived loss of farmers’ autonomy, a possible violation of intellectual property rights, and the ideas of GMOs as incompatible with sustainable agriculture.

Read More: Should genetically modified organisms be part of our conservation efforts?

GMOs can feed a growing global population

One of the arguments in favour of GMOs is that they play an important role in helping meet the long-term food needs of the world in a more sustainable way.

The need to “feed the world” is recognised by the UN General Assembly as a global problem.

A firm intention to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture is proposed as the second goal of sustainable development. Whether it is possible to achieve this goal without GMOs is a topic of debate.

The functionality of GMOs in promoting sustainable agriculture is mute, apparently, due to the concerns of risks formulated in international law more than twenty years ago:

Article 8(g) of the CBD calls upon to “[e]stablish or maintain means to regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology which are likely to have adverse environmental impacts that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account the risks to human health.”

Read More: Genetic modification to fight potato late blight

After two decades, GMOs are still controversial

It is hard to find a more attractive argument in favour of GMOs than their apparent utility to meet the needs of food for growing populations.
It is equally difficult to defy the argument of the risks of GMOs. Ironically, none of these arguments turns out to be true.

Neither the benefits nor the risks of GMOs have proven to be convincing yet, so the debate is on. At present, after more than two decades since genetically modified products have been marketed, the issues of risks and safety of GMOs are still controversial.

Read More: No scientific proof that organic food is healthier than non-organic food

Policies are skewed to avoid “significant adverse effects”

Risk regulation is concerned with the governance of risks to health and safety weighed against social and economic interests. That is, a health protection measure can affect trade, and vice versa, a trade liberalisation can affect health protection interests and environmental policy in general.

The frameworks of regulation on GMOs vary between countries, because it is up to each country to “[i]ntroduce appropriate procedures requiring environmental impact assessment of its proposed projects that are likely to have significant adverse effects on biological diversity with a view to avoiding or minimizing such effects and, where, appropriate, allow for public participation in such procedures.”

A commitment to avoiding or minimising the possibility of “significant adverse effect” indicates a misbalance between benefit maximisation and risk minimisation inasmuch as the considerations of benefits are skewed towards safety.

Read More: How sustainable is organic food?

Fear of GMOs is irriational

The non-expert understanding of risk is amplified by perception.

Public perception of risk is characterised with a great deal of anxiety over the hypothetical possibility of risks, even non-existent at present, to become fully apparent in long-term perspective due to reasons beyond our capability to understand the complexity of the ecosystem.

The irrational fear of harm to health and the environment based on the public perception of risks is neglected by risk analysis due to the unscientific nature of such perception.

On the other hand, the uncertainty and social uneasiness over genome editing cannot be ignored by democratically elected governments.

The obligations of transparency and accountability to civil society induces policy makers to accommodate public opinion into decision making on genetic engineering.

The expert and the public opinion have an equal say in decision making on health and safety. Both must be integrated into decision making in order to avoid bias and lop-sided solutions.

Read More: From genetically modified tobacco plants to medicine for Ebola

Laws should promote sustainability without stifling innovation

Today, the laws, definitions, and regulatory approaches to crops derived from biotechnology vary considerably between different countries.

In this respect, the central question here is how to find a common ground between scientific and socio-economic considerations relevant to the regulation of biotechnologies, and how the law should treat genetic engineering afterwards.

If we want to realise potential synergies between genetic engineering and environmental governance, regulation on GMOs must accommodate both scientific and public risk perspectives on biotechnology.

A good example of such a potential synergy would be the example of laws and regulations which would facilitate achieving sustainability in agriculture and would promote a high level of health and environmental protection without stifling innovation.


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