4.7 Safety assessment today
At the time of writing (2006), the descriptions of safety assessment for GM crops and derived products are far more rigorous than the vague prescriptions offered in the early 1990s (see Figure 2). This might be seen as an inevitable development as scientific knowledge increases and technology improves. However, that would only be part of the story. A fully rounded appraisal of the evolution of safety assessment in this field would have to acknowledge the huge part that both the direct criticism of the principle and anti-GM public protest played in forcing regulatory scientists and authorities to refine and improve their systems.
Figure 2 summarises a proposed European approach to the hazard assessment involved in producing a new GM variety and/or food product, as described in the report of the EU sponsored project, ENTRANSFOOD (introduced in Section 3.1). This was a working group of industry and academic scientists, regulatory experts and consumer representatives. The precise details of every step in the procedure need not concern us, but the four stages are:
Determining the precise characteristics of the parent crop.
Determining in detail the nature of the DNA inserted and the delivery process.
Studying the various characteristics of the product(s) of the transferred genes.
Studying the various characteristics of the new crop as a whole.
Each of these stages requires the detailed study of specific defined aspects. Many of these are themselves the subject of detailed international standards that carry weight in international and national regulations. For example, the OECD publishes documents that provide the international consensus view as to the key nutrients, toxins, allergens and biologically active substances that should to be measured for many of the common species.
Note that the project responsible for the assessment scheme described above was not made up of scientists alone. In Europe, the 1990s saw an increasing involvement of consumer groups and other NGOs in the decision making process. Traditionally, the development of food safety regulations had involved the generation of scientific risk assessments by scientific experts, which were then interpreted by regulatory scientists, civil servants and, in the last instance, elected politicians. From the late 1990s on, partly as a result of the pressure from opponents of GM, Governments and international organisations increasingly have found it necessary to invite consumer groups and other NGOs to take part in the relevant working groups.
The involvement of non-scientists in these working groups reflected a wider change that occurred in the 1990s - the move to attempt much wider consultation with the public over issues of technological and scientific development. In the next section, we will examine this trend in more detail, in particular focusing on the GM Nation? debate, an attempt to consult the British public over the development of GM crops.