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Recommendations for Enhancing Consumer Confidence in Agricultural Biotechnology 

Public confidence in and acceptance of products of agricultural biotechnology depend upon rigorous regulation, sufficient information and products with benefits for the consumer. In the past decade a number of products of agricultural biotechnology have been commercialized and are taking their place in the food system alongside products from more conventional processes. Though usage of agricultural biotech products is far from universal, it has been growing rapidly. But, the lack of public confidence in some countries is limiting the application of agricultural biotechnology and creating trade tensions among countries. Unless governments and the private sector move jointly to enhance public confidence, consumers, food companies and retailers will continue to avoid the products of agricultural biotechnology.

With conventional and agricultural biotech products likely to coexist in the global food system, it is important to develop regulatory and communication protocols that ensure safe and responsible use of biotechnology products by farmers, and informed choice for consumers in efficient, transparent and trustworthy ways. The IPC believes that the following recommendations would serve those goals. 

First, the IPC believes that each product of agricultural biotechnology should be evaluated on its own merits. Agricultural biotechnology does not come to the market in its entirety, requiring an approval or disapproval of the entire technology. Rather, it comes to the market as discrete products, which should each be evaluated on its own merits. Each product has specific, well-defined characteristics that can be scrutinized and tested within a comprehensive regulatory process by an independent body established for that purpose. At the same time, the developers of biotechnology products have the responsibility to steward the products they place on the market to ensure that they are safe and effective.

Government regulation should apply the most current scientific knowledge and principles to specific products as they are developed and presented to the marketplace. Over time, researchers will develop more precise testing techniques, deeper understanding of relationships and a clearer picture of how genes express traits. They also will have the benefit of others’ experiences in dealing with similar products. This on-going process will enable developers and regulators to use the best current scientific evidence to assess products. This regulatory approach ensures that only safe products come to the market. 

Second, the IPC believes that a combination of government regulation and private markets are the best means for discovering and serving consumer preferences. Societies choose how to communicate information about the safety, nutrition and environmental attributes of food products based on a variety of considerations. One technique that has spawned much discussion is labeling. It is not the IPC’s purpose to pass judgment on specific labeling regimes. Rather, the IPC seeks to offer guidelines for providing consumers with information that will enable them to have real choices between conventional food products and products from agricultural biotechnology in transparent, cost effective ways.

These guidelines define appropriate roles for government and of the private sector in providing transparent, efficient choices. The IPC believes the government has three roles to perform:

  • First, government must ensure that products that pose risks to specific population groups (such as food allergies) or generalized risks (such as saturated fats) are so labeled;
  • Second, government must ensure that any classification schemes referred to in labels are clearly defined and standardized, so that label references to such classifications are clear and understandable to consumers;
  • Third, government must ensure that labels or other communications about specific food products are accurate, verifiable, understandable and not misleading. Labeling should be science-based.

When governments actively enforce these standards, the resulting market environment for trustworthy communication is enhanced.

Other roles, however, are best left to private markets. Specifically, while governments clearly have the authority to require labeling, experience to date suggests that this approach, while accepted in some markets, does not necessarily encourage open communication. Mandated labels, especially those that generically describe a production process rather than a product’s specific attributes, tend to encourage food suppliers to avoid such products in order to avoid the labeling requirements. This ultimately restricts consumer choice and deprives the market of new products and new technologies.

A better way to provide transparent information to consumers would be to allow markets to reveal and serve consumer preferences through voluntary, product-specific labels. For example, consumers who wish to use organic products, kosher products or "free-range" products can be identified in the marketplace, with the food industry then providing products and information to consumers that are interested in these specific attributes. There is no reason to believe that such a system cannot work in differentiating conventional food products from agricultural biotech products.

As conventional, organic, biotech and other foods come to exist side by side, real consumer choice will increasingly depend on acceptable tolerances for commingling across categories. Governments can promote transparency by avoiding tolerances or thresholds that are not commercially viable. In the best case, appropriate thresholds for mixing ingredients from conventional and biotechnology products would depend on prevailing commercial practices and would emerge from market signals themselves. These thresholds, in fact, may evolve over time as consumer preferences, marketing technologies or product profiles change.

Establishing tolerances is a special challenge for products approved in one jurisdiction but not another. Different timing for regulatory approvals among trading partners can create trade barriers that can escalate into trade conflicts, when small amounts of the unapproved product is commingled with approved products. The IPC believes the best way to handle this challenge is to require regulatory approval in the exporting country and require submission for regulatory approval in the importing country. In essence, this is a temporary "mutual recognition" agreement that would facilitate commerce while respecting the rights of individual countries to conduct their own regulatory approval processes.

Over the longer term, the IPC believes that countries need to begin to work towards a mutual recognition agreement for products of plant biotechnology similar to those in place for drugs and consumer products. Once two countries’ regulatory systems have been determined to be essentially equivalent, those countries should agree to recognize products approved in the one for sale in the other. Once a number of countries have signed on to such mutual recognition agreements, they could then be used by other countries, who might not have robust approval processes, as proxy for its own product approval systems.
Finally, the IPC believes that producers and consumers of seed, food and feed share a common interest in avoiding trade conflicts over differences in regulatory standards or differences in timing of approvals.
Such conflicts are in no one’s interest. Whatever the merits of the arguments, bringing grievances over biotechnology at this early stage in the technology’s development to a legal proceeding in the World Trade Organization risks inflaming passions, raising consumer concerns, and forcing politicians to choose sides. Continuing dialogue between governments, improving regulatory frameworks, and building trust with consumers are more likely to accommodate differences in ways that enhance consumer confidence and acceptance.

May 14, 2002

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2001 The International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council. All Rights Reserved.