Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner

Contrary to proponents' initial expectations, the public has not enthusiastically embraced agricultural biotechnology. In retrospect, it is not hard to see how this came about. In the beginning, most scientists and, to a greater extent, company executives assumed that the wonders of biotechnology were self-evident and that the benefits were almost unlimited. They were slow to recognize that the public was becoming increasingly alienated by decision makers who ignored the need for public input into how the technology could or should be used, and they tended to underestimate or dismiss the public's concerns about safety.

More recently, policy makers, regulatory authorities, and GMO developers have started to change their way of thinking. They now see that providing a means for public involvement in decision making and paying attention to public concerns before they become adversarial issues are the first and perhaps most important steps in building public confidence in the safety of GMOs and acceptance of GM products.

How and to what extent this can be achieved will vary from one country to another. In the Philippines, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and public interest groups are members of the National Committee for Biosafety. By law, local communities where field tests are to be conducted must be notified in advance and given the opportunity to voice their position regarding the proposed tests. If public opposition is strong for whatever reason, the test may not be approved. At the other end of the spectrum, particularly in countries having nonparticipatory forms of government, there are no mechanisms for public input and it is not considered in official decision making.

Somewhere in the middle are countries, Argentina for example, where research scientists and national biosafety committee members engage in numerous formal and informal dialogues with environmental NGOs and consumer groups. In the United States, a public notice that an application for commercial production has been received by the Department of Agriculture's regulatory agency is published in the daily Federal Register. The announcement briefly describes the GMO, informs readers where to get full information about the proposal, and invites public comment within a specified timeframe (usually sixty or ninety days). During the subsequent biosafety review and in the ensuing decision document, all comments submitted by the interested parties are specifically addressed and responses given. In many countries, government regulators, biosafety officials, and scientists routinely appear in public discussion forums and, from time to time, organize informational meetings intended for general audiences.

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