Information and Access

Scientific biosafety review teams require a significant amount of information and data on which to base their recommendations. The greater the degree of confidence sought, or the lower the tolerance for an erroneous finding, the more information needed. Much of the necessary information may be supplied with the application. However, a predetermined set of questions may not elicit all that is necessary and sufficient to complete an informed risk assessment. Where gaps exist, or if supporting or confirming information is needed, review teams need access to other sources.

Sources

Information to support safety assessments and recommendations is available from a wide range of sources and in a variety formats: peer-reviewed scientific publications, experts in relevant professional fields (e.g., breeders, agronomists, seed suppliers), conference proceedings, review articles, and even colleagues working in local institutions. Decision documents from other national biosafety committees are a particularly rich source of information on identified risks and management options for particular GM crops and products.

The scientific literature is full of useful information, but persistence is often required to locate the right material. Biosafety-related information may be found in books and journals concerning:

• Basic knowledge of crop biology and agronomic practices

• Ecological relationships in agricultural systems including the crop, its pests and pathogens, and environmental conditions

• Major biotic and abiotic constraints to crop productivity

• Peer-reviewed experimental risk-assessment data and analyses

• Review articles on biosafety issues and current expert opinions on associated risks and risk-management procedures

• Regulations and guidelines from other countries

• Reports and documents from international organizations

To address the need for support in biosafety implementation, the Cartagena Protocol calls for an international biosafety clearing house to coordinate and disseminate information to member countries. The clearing house will be restricted to information about the deliberate transboundary movement of living modified organisms. Until it is set up, a number of research, educational, government, private sector, and civic organizations have attempted to make certain information more readily accessible. Appendix 2 is an annotated list of Internet sites providing useful information about agricultural biotechnology, basics of genetic engineering, benefits and potential risks, national regulations, the Cartagena Protocol, field tests and commercial products, and related topics.

Acquiring information

Information can be accessed through many channels. Books, journal subscriptions, participation in conferences and symposia, and personal networking have long been the mainstays of information transfer. These sources remain extremely valuable and should continue to receive institutional support. However, the world is in the midst of a rapid transition from paper-based to electronic forms of information. The Internet has overtaken other resources in terms of sheer volume of material. Internet-based and electronic information is much more difficult to obtain in countries where e-mail and Internet connections are unavailable, unreliable, or laborious. Accordingly, countries seeking to implement biosafety systems must give high priority to strengthening the communications infrastructure to provide adequate access to electronic information.

Misinformation

The Internet is without doubt the world's richest source of information; with a little skill in search methodology, information seekers can find practically any information they want. However, because the Internet is open to all and there is no mechanism for moderating its use or policing its content, the quality of information found there is highly variable, to say the least. There is no requirement for accuracy, honesty, or accountability. The situation is compounded by the widely held view that any information that is published is "true." Web site owners can post, move, alter, or remove content at will; original sources can be hidden or absent. This state of affairs brings a new responsibility to biosafety reviewers and decision makers: They must double check the accuracy of information from unknown or unaccredited Web sites before using or disseminating it. In this age of information overload, the ability to critically evaluate the quality of information and be appropriately selective is a skill of increasing importance.

Needed Resources

The expenses of obtaining information, maintaining libraries or data bases, and sorting and disseminating information are unavoidable. Funding must be secured for the necessary infrastructure (computers and communications equipment, reliable links for telephone, fax, e-mail, and

Internet connections) and technical support. Information costs associated with conducting biosafety reviews may escalate in time as well as money if required data are unavailable and the only way to get them is through additional research. Striving to improve accuracy in biosafety reviews - by increasing the amount of information obtained or the robustness of the analysis performed - increases the cost of the enterprise and decreases the relative value of additional information. At some point, the value of additional information may not be sufficient to justify its cost. Decisions will need to be made about how much is enough and how available information will be used to best meet national biosafety needs.

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