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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BIOSAFETY ISSUE

Since the early 1970s, recombinant DNA technology — the ability to transfer genetic material through biochemical means — has enabled scientists to genetically modify plants, animals and micro-organisms rapidly. Modern biotechnology can also introduce a greater diversity of genes into organisms, including genes from unrelated species, than traditional methods of breeding and selection. Organisms genetically modified in this way are referred to as living modified organisms derived from modern biotechnology (LMOs).

Biotechnology has led to advances in medicine, and promises to improve agricultural products and industrial processes as well. Agricultural biotechnology can improve the resistance of plants to pests or environmental stresses, and can increase the commercial value of agricultural products. Other uses for biotechnology include environmentally- friendly industrial processes that may reduce the use of harsh or toxic chemicals.

Although modern biotechnology has demonstrated its utility, there are concerns about the potential risks to biodiversity and human health posed by LMOs. Many countries with biotechnology industries already have domestic legislation in place intended to ensure the safe transfer, handling, use and disposal of LMOs and their products (these precautionary practices are collectively known as “biosafety”). However, there are no binding international agreements addressing situations where LMOs cross national borders.

Two categories of intended use of LMOs — contained use and field release — are recognized. LMOs intended for contained use are usually research material and are subject to well-defined risk management techniques involving laboratory containment. LMOs developed for agricultural and, in some cases, industrial biotechnology, are intended for field release. Field testing of LMOs is a new undertaking, and the interaction of LMOs with various ecosystems continues to generate questions about safety. Some of the concerns about field release of LMOs include: unintended changes in the competitiveness, virulence or other characteristics of the target species; the possibility of adverse impacts on non-target species and ecosystems; the potential for weediness in genetically modified crops; and the stability of inserted genes.

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