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| Addressing the Controversies |
Decisions made regarding the use of genetically modified organisms will impact the environment, and force a reexamination of consumer safety and animal welfare issues. Do the benefits provided by transgenic organisms outweigh the risks? Are those making decisions influenced too heavily by the profit motive? How can opportunities for competing approaches be ensured?
Certainly the production of genetically altered organisms is a profit-making business. In 1980, individuals and companies realizing this sought protection of their intellectual property and turned to the courts. That year the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision stating that living organisms are patentable; in 1988 a patent was issued for the genetically altered "Harvard mouse."
In late 2001 seventy-seven scientists and teachers from sixteen countries, concerned with how environmental protection decisions are made, issued the Lowell Statement on Science and Precaution. Their "Precautionary Principle" recommends using the safest approaches to meeting society's needs, placing responsibility for finding the safest alternatives in the hands of those originating potentially dangerous activities, use of independent review, and participation of those who may be affected by a policy choice. These guidelines might well be extended beyond environmental policy.
Governmental bodies often play the role of reviewer when it comes to safety, particularly of foods. Various governments and organizations have begun generating guidelines and recommendations regarding foods derived from transgenic organisms. For example, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations along with the World Health Organization organized a series of scientific consultations to provide their member nations with recommendations. In a January 2001 report the consultation agreed that "the safety assessment of foods derived from biotechnology requires an integrated and stepwise, case-by-case approach." 2
Can the population at large - by consumer and political choice - influence the use of genetically modified organisms? In November 2002 Oregon was the first state in the U.S. to put labeling of genetically modified foods on the ballot. Proponents of labeling spent about 200,000 dollars to convince voters. Opponents, with funding from large agribusinesses, spent 5.5 million dollars to kill the idea. Voters were convinced that labeling would significantly increase food costs and rejected the measure.
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| ||End Notes |
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- Wilmut I., A. E. Schnieke, J. McWhir, A. J. Kind, and K. H. S. Canbell. 1997. Viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells. Nature 385:810-12.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2001. Evaluation of Allergenicity of Genetically Modified Foods. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Allergenicity of Food Derived from Biotechnology 22-25 Jan 2001. Rome, Italy