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"Safety First" for Genetically Modified Organisms

biotech syringe

Genetically modified food and animals hold promises but also cause concern. Sea Grant is working with the various groups involved to help find ways to manage these organisms.

What motivates us is a desire to achieve the best attainable level of scientifically-reliable and socially-robust proactive safety governance of the GMO industry.

From "A 'Safety First' Approach to Active Governance of Genetic Engineering: An ISEES Perspective," A. Kapuscinski, E. Pullins, S. Hann, L. Jacobs, and B. Sewall.

In only 16 years, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) rocketed from an extraordinary laboratory feat to a global commodity, covering 109.2 million acres of cropland. Most of this acreage lies in the U.S., where over 50 crop GMOs are commercially available and over one-third of the corn crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Virus-resistant GMO papayas are credited with saving the industry in Hawaii and rice, genetically fortified with extra beta-carotene, might save the eyesight and lives of millions of malnourished children (and boost the credibility of the controversial biotech industry).

Our society grapples with this new biotechnological power...its uses, limitations, and management. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization advocates caution, recognizing biotechnology's promises and threats. The European Union is requiring that genetically modified food be labeled as such. In Washington, D.C., special interest groups argue the issues from all sides as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) struggle to balance human health, free enterprise, environmental integrity, and politics. Meanwhile, members of the GMO industry work to address citizen concerns with industry trials and public relations efforts.

Anne Kapuscinski, biotechnology and aquaculture specialist with Minnesota Sea Grant and director of the University's Institute for Social, Economic, and Ecological Sustainability (ISEES), is also devoting significant energy towards crafting credible and reliable mechanisms for managing GMOs. She tackles GMO safety with such insight and passion that within the last year she was awarded a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship and two grants to further her activities relating to the safety governance of GMOs.

Safety First

Kapuscinski, along with other leading scientists engaged in research on the ecological and human health risks of GMOs, recently generated Genetically Engineered Organisms: Assessing Environmental and Human Health Effects, a 456-page scientific book that promises to become "A standard reference on risk assessment of genetically-engineered organisms for some years to come," according to Jane Rissler from the Union of Concerned Scientists. (A free copy of Kapuscinski's chapter from this text can be ordered from Minnesota Sea Grant's journal reprint order form.)

Another of the multiple ways Kapuscinski and her colleagues have addressed the safety of GMOs over the past year is by orchestrating and conducting the workshop Safety First: the Active Governance of Genetic Engineering for Environment and Human Health Worldwide. The workshop, held on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota, introduced a proposal to unite business, consumer and public interest groups, and scientific and government representatives to establish a cross-industry safety program for GMOs. An intense group of 162 people provided extensive feedback on this proposal.

"The 'Safety First' approach discussed at this workshop generated unusual agreement between previously acrimonious key players," said Kapuscinski. The heart of Safety First is to design, verify, and monitor the environmental and human safety of GMO products using scientifically-reliable and publicly-trusted standards.

"This initiative is moving forward, and we are excited by the support and broad interest it has attracted," Kapuscinski added.

Panel discussions about the hard-won lessons of the Safety First approach in manufacturing and presentations by safety system engineers provided the framework for understanding and addressing risks associated with GMOs. During a less formal discussion, a representative from one of the world's largest producers of genetically engineered corn talked about industry trials with a board member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture. Simultaneously, a Kenyan entomologist expressed concerns about the way genetically modified pollen could affect the mixed agricultural practices of farmers in Africa to an audience including Jennifer Kuzma of the United States' National Academy of Science.

The idea that GMO safety issues need go through a transparent, deliberative process pervaded the dialogs. Transparency allowing mutually-agreed upon participation of representatives of citizen groups in industry-wide safety programs for GMOs was viewed as crucial. As one participant said, "We need to understand the knowledge and lack of knowledge because we're working with organisms that change, in an environment that changes."

"We would like to see companies invest more of their resources in environmental risk assessment and safety issues," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense and a prominent figure in national committees on biotechnology. "Genomics has a promising future, particularly in helping us to understand multigene processes, but it also involves risks to human and environmental safety. I think it is very useful for biotech companies to consider how other industries assess risk and prioritize safety."

Currently, at least one of three federal agencies (USDA, FDA, or the EPA) review plans submitted by biotechnology companies, but the real safety of the products relies on industry integrity and the diligence of GMO handlers and users. ISEES continues to work towards the convergence of industry, public interest groups, and government to develop a GMO industry safety program.

The workshop final report, "Making Safety First a Reality," is available online along with information on the safety governance of genetically modified marine organisms, and reference lists pertinent to marine biotechnology and related policies at: http://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/52071.

To order a free copy of Kapuscinki's chapter from the textbook Genetically Engineered Organisms: Assessing Environmental and Human Health Effects, see item JR 474, Controversies in Designing Useful Ecological Assessments of Genetically Engineered Organisms, on our journal reprints order form.

By Sharon Moen
December 2001

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