Commentary on Food Biotechnology

Science and technology produce many benefits but at the same time they are the cause for concerns on health and environmental welfare. Technology saves lives but with every new invention there are unintended consequences which we call (risks(. Technology risks are serious issues which will become only more prominent as new discoveries and innovations are made to enhance the quality of our everyday lives. Is the risk of trading in our health and environment quality for technological advancement worth taking? How do we decide which risks are worth taking and which are not?

How to deal with risks? In order to prevent any surprise as a result of new innovations, we must learn to assess and manage risks in an effective manner. Risk management is a process of managing an organization’s risk exposures to achieve its objectives in a manner consistent with public interest, human safety, environmental factors, and the law. Beck, in his article called Politics of Risk Society, was well ahead of his time in calling attention to the importance of the concept of risk and the practice of risk management as essential features of modern society. Risk management requires communication and trust between academic experts, regulatory practitioners, interest groups and the general public.

Citizens and scientific experts often perceive risks differently. The scientists tend to focus on quantitative aspects like morbidity, mortality and probability. The ordinary citizens on the other hand, tend to view risks more qualitatively like fairness, ethics, and freedom to take or to avoid a risk, which science typically ignores. Therefore, communications strategies must seek to break the barrier and accomplish greater trust so that the public and all parties understand the issues. One of the ways that these parties can sit down and share their understanding of a particular risk is through a consensus conference.

What is a citizen-based consensus conference? The practice, known as Citizens( Consensus Conference enables citizens to express their opinions on controversial technological issues that are usually handled exclusively by specialists. This model of technology assessment is intended to make the process more democratic by allowing the public to convey its position to policy makers. In this way, citizens have become indirectly involved in decision-making processes.

It is appropriate because this is modern democracy and we need to shape our system into one that responds to desires of the public. However, the outcome of the consensus conference does not aim to enact legislation, but it merely provides advice for the decision makers. Another positive contribution is that consensus conference harness greater trust between the experts and the public and trust is important for risk communication.

Food biotechnology consensus conference Food biotechnology is a major technological innovation whose benefits and risks are the subject of heated controversy examined in the following consensus conference. In March 1999, a panel of citizens came together to discuss with a panel of experts matters they find important that will influence the direction of food biotechnology in Canada. The use of biotechnology is evolving for the agriculture and food system and many individuals and organizations want to find out how it will affect them and their families, the environment and society in general. Canada is a resource based economy therefore the issue of food biotechnology has remarkable effects to her economy.

In order for unbiased selection of the citizens panel at the consensus conference in Calgary, fifteen individuals from different social and economic spectrum of society were chosen by an advisory committee. There was an equal number representation of the sexes from a variety of educational and financial backgrounds as well as a wide range of ages. The citizens panel were from different walks of life and were better able to represent the general public.

The fifteen members were given background information on the issue, the information outlined the problem from various perspectives, such as, professional, ethical, and political, etc.. Next there was a preliminary meeting to discuss a list of questions to be presented to the experts in various fields during the conference. The experts were chosen by the citizen jury whom they felt could best address their concerns.

The actual conference was when the group of citizens met with the experts and presented their key questions. Afterwards, the citizens conducted a discussion among themselves and came up with a final report highlighting their concerns and recommendations. The questions addressed at the consensus conference were broken up into six categories, they were: public interaction, ethics, legislation, environment, social and economic impacts, and consumer health and safety. Let(s examine them one at a time.

Public interaction Some concerns that the panel had for public involvement in food biotechnology were: public participation may not exist in the future when it comes to important technological risk issues; information available to the public tend to be biased; new products are approved and the public is informed later; the final report from the panel has little or no effect to government officials. The panel recommended that: there be more public participation; an independent body should be responsible for collecting public opinions; public input should act as advice and recommendations to the ministers.

Ethics Some concerns that the panel had for ethical issues regarding food biotechnology were: there currently exists no ethical guidelines with respect to this issue; animal welfare; and what limit can we put on gene modification? They suggested that there need to be a code of ethics to regulate the food biotechnology products and this code of ethics has to be developed from inputs from all stakeholders.

Legislation As for legislation on genetically altered foods, the panel was well aware of the lack of a labelling law and that international trade of food biotechnology may compromise with other nations( cultures and ethics. Hence they recommended that there be an effective labelling policy and an international legislation on bio-safety that must respect individual countries( cultures and ethics. Environment The concerns were that: the real long-term effects of genetically modified organisms are not certain; diversity of species could be at risk; pest resistance could result; cross breeding of genetically modified organisms has unpredictable risks. Finally the panel felt that there must be strict reviews on researches and more risk assessment processes.

Social and economic impacts There are enormous economic gains in the industries related to food biotechnology, but there are social and ethical issues that need to be considered as well, this is a concern of the panel. They recommended that the government must put more efforts into monitoring the concentrated control of the food biotechnology industry as well as review patenting laws from this industry.

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