Genetically Modified Organisms - A Summary of Potential Adverse Effects Relevant to Sustainable Development
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are one of the most widespread and controversial products of modern biotechnology. The changes introduced in organisms and their secondary effects in complex natural and anthropogenic systems have raised a series of concerns and uncertainties with regard to their safety and the production packages that they rely on. These concerns are linked to the potential impacts of GMOs on the achievement of sustainable development.
This report emphasizes that the potential impacts of GMOs take place along their life cycle and value chain. In this sense, assessments only at specific stages (commonly at open field production or consumption) are incomplete, limiting the holistic understanding of impacts and their intertwined nature. This is consistent with findings in the literature review, carried out to identify potential effects along the value chain of GMOs, which show the potential multiple links and combinatorial effects of
GMOs at different stages (e.g., from their research and development (R&D) to commercialization). Another feature of this report is that it focuses on potential adverse effects of GMOs (particularly GM crops) that may impact sustainable development.
At the R&D level, intellectual property rights (IRP) on GMOs impact the objectives, market organization and regulation, among others, of the modern biotechnology industry. IPR on GMOs, mainly GM seeds, have economic and social effects as well. This applies especially to farmers in relation to legal and economic liabilities arising from the unintentional presence of GMOs. Impacts at the production stage, mainly of GM crops, are related to the inherent characteristics of the GMOs and to the production packages that they rely on. Imbalance and contamination (both genetic and chemical) of the (agro) ecosystems are the most commonly reported adverse impacts at the ecological level. Changes in land use and production costs, dependency on a specific technological package, weakening of food sovereignty, inequity in access to the technology and benefits sharing, occupational health risks, and tensions among adopter and non-adopters of GMOs are some of the economic and social potential implications of GMOs at the production stage. During harvesting, storage, conditioning and processing of GMOs, the changes in yield, the economic implications of contamination, the limited options for differentiation and segregation for small-scale producers and enterprises are the main possible adverse impacts. Since GM-crops production is inserted into the industrial agricultural sector, particularly for the production of commodities, the transportation and commercialization of GMOs are linked to high carbon generation and energy consumption, market concentration and vertical integration, which relates to limited opportunities for fair trade. As for consumption of GMOs, the main issues are related to potential harm to animals (farm or wild) and human health, including an ethical issue on the right of informed consumption.
All these concerns have set the need for international agreements and national legal frameworks to contribute to the safe transport, handling and use of GMOs in order to minimize or prevent adverse effects. In this regard, relevant international agreements dealing with GMOs are the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB), the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), the newly agreed upon Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the CPB, Codex Alimentarius, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), standards, recommendations and guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and the Aarhus Convention specifically related to the right to public participation in biosafety decision-making. At the regional level, the EU probably has the most developed biosafety regulation, which deals with the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment, GM food and feed, traceability and labelling, transboundary movements and co-existence, among others. At the national level, the Norwegian Gene Technology Act is the most prominent example, with the inclusion of sustainable development, societal utility and the ethical aspects of biosafety regulation.
In the global context of biosafety, labelling and traceability are important since this will:
i) provide means for monitoring long-term impacts on the environment and health, and
ii) facilitate informed decisions among users and consumers. Besides initiatives on GMO labelling, GM-free certification provided by organic farming, sustainable development initiatives and fair trade represent other approaches to addressing GMO labelling. In addition, the GMO-free regions movement also intends to create products and services with a differentiated identity by avoiding GMO production.