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The OECD Edinburgh Conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods (2000) / OECD Consultation with Non-Governmental Organisations on Biotechnology and Other Aspects of Food Safety (1999)


ISSUES: Scientific and health aspects of GM food


GOALS: To bring together a diverse group of participants for a constructive dialogue on the safety of GM food


PARTICIPATING STAKEHOLDERS: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); governments; industry; scientists; civil society organisations such as Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth, GeneWatch; consumer groups


TIME FRAME: OECD Conference – 2000; OECD first NGO consultation process 1999


MSP CONTACT DETAILS; URL: www.oecd.org/subject/biotech/edinburgh.htm  and  www.oecd.org/subject/biotech/ngoconsultation.htm



Type: Informing

Level: International / national


Procedural Aspects:

Designing the MSP

1999: Consultation process initiated by OECD with 50+ invited NGOs with the purpose of hearing/understanding their views.

2000: OECD Conference, hosted by UK Government as part of an ongoing programme of work at the OECD on biotechnology.

NGOs did not have input into the conference planning process. However, it is possible that the 1999 consultation had impact on the design of the 2000 conference.


Identifying the issues to be addressed in an MSP

The initiative arose out of a request from the G8 Heads of State and Government that the OECD “undertake a study of the implications of biotechnology and other aspects of food safety…” (G8 Summit, Cologne, June 1999).

The conference focus was GM food safety and human health. There was discussion of the science (including social science of consumer attitudes) with agreement from the Chair, Sir John Krebs (Professor of Zoology, Oxford University and Chair Designate of the future UK Food Standards Agency) that other “non-scientific issues e.g. values and beliefs" should not be excluded from the debate.

From an NGO perspective, it appeared that the Government felt it needed to constrain the dialogue to health; the debate was then constrained by the fact that unless evidence was peer-reviewed, issues could not be raised. Therefore, scientists who had peer-reviewed work because it benefited biotechnology were able to dominate.


Identifying relevant stakeholders

The OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry (DSTI) responded to concerns of the OECD Council & the Secretary-General that “Communication with the public and representatives of the many concerned elements of civil society is crucial to promoting progress in the fields of biotechnology and food safety”.

Civil society participants included scientists, business, industry, agriculture, labour, consumer groups and a few environmental organisations. Plus a number of representatives from developing countries.


Identifying MSP participants

The Conference was attended by approximately 400 invitees from more than 25 countries. The aim was to be inclusive, to encourage a wide diversity of views to be expressed both on the platform and in the audience.

NGOs included Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth, GeneWatch, Soil Association, RSPB. There were also health professionals/NGOs but no opportunities to overlap.


Setting the goals of an MSP

The purpose of the 3 day event was to bring together a diverse group of participants for “a constructive dialogue on the safety of GM food”, with an emphasis on the underlying science and on human health.

NGOs view that the format – a large conference hall with no possibility of clusters/sector groupings etc. - was not appropriate. There was very little evidence of MSP dialogue – more a ‘showpiece’ event. With 80/20 ratio– no real cause for concern.

The conference perceived there was a strong sense of the need to rebuild trust between various actors, particularly governments, industry, scientists, regulatory agencies and the public.


Setting the agenda

OECD set the agenda.


Setting the time-table

OECD set the time-table in response to G8 Industrialised Countries Heads of State and Government (1999) request and OECD mandates.


Preparatory process


Communication process

A one-off event. Conference format with short introductory presentations to each section, followed by commentaries from panel members before opening the discussion to the audience.

There was, however, an informal segment during the event which would have allowed for a mixing of the different groups and more sideline discussions. Industry commented that at an unofficial side event organized by a Scottish environmentalist group, the debate was more informal and got a little more into the fundamental philosophical issues; the impression was that this was a step towards overcoming the usual "Feindbild".

The speakers and panellists were, in approximately equal numbers, proponents of GM, opponents, and those who were neutral. Presenters came from a wide range of developed and developing countries: they were primarily scientists, regulators, NGOs and industry representatives.

It was recognised that the debate needs to become more open, transparent and inclusive.

NGOs were not happy with process, described as a 'complete abuse' of what a MSP ought to be, when compared with other events like the World Conservation Congress (similar to Environment Council debates but squeezed into 1-2 days). NGOs said they would not participate in this kind of set-up again.

Some industry representatives view is that some activist groups were not happy with the format which did not work in their favour; they had problems to respond to the chair's repeated explicit invitation to support their anti-GMO claims with evidence - be it scientific or anecdotal. This made them look stupid so that even the press reacted negatively at the Greenpeace press conference. 

Industry also commented that there was a (deserved) degree of discomfort among some industry people who tried to stick to their pre-approved corporate speak in a setting which would have required a more open, flexible approach. There were interesting internal discussions on the industry side.


Decision-making process: procedures of agreement

The conference didn’t aim at finding a consensus, rather it identified “areas of greater agreement, of divergence of opinion, and of uncertainty due to lack of knowledge.”

The Chair’s report suggested that “the most significant aspect of the Edinburgh conference was that it included all sides of the debate surrounding GM foods and nevertheless identified certain areas of agreement (…) It also succeeded in separating out issues which are subject to scientific analysis and those which are related to political factors, beliefs and values” (OECD 2000).


Implementation process

No implementation process was aimed at.


Closing the MSP

There was support for continuing the process to deal with other parts of the debate.

The Chair recommended that an international forum be created. One possible model is that of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which informs but doesn’t make policy and acknowledges minority scientific views. IPCC reports, however, come under scrutiny of governments before publication. For a similar process on GMOs, wider stakeholder involvement and a global scope would be required.


Structural Aspects:

Structures / institutions of the MSP

OECD as Secretariat and facilitating role.



OECD; facilitation of panel discussions by conference chair.



The OECD undertook the responsibility to summarise and report on the findings. Its documentation clearly states that, unlike other OECD reports, these outcomes do not necessarily represent the official views of Member governments, instead they “reflect broader and sometimes conflicting views of civil society, indicate areas of agreement and disagreement, and attempt to show a way forward towards resolving some of the controversies raised by genetically modified foods” (OECD 2000).

Documentation published in hard copy and electronic format.


Relating to not-participating stakeholders

Participation was by invitation only.


Relating to the general public

The reports are freely available on the OECD web site.

Proceedings acknowledged need for trust building. “The general public –consumers and citizens- not only have a right to know, but they also have valid points of view, which need to be effectively voiced, understood and given weight in the decision-making and policy making process. A range of good practice examples were put forward for public engagement" (OECD 2000).


Linkage into official decision-making process

Arose out of official request from G8 leaders; linkage of outcomes into decision-making are unclear – informative process. It will be up to governments to make use of the conference report.



The conference was hosted and funded by the UK Government. NGO Consultation meeting (1999) was hosted by the OECD.


Information as of 19 February, 2001


Contact Minu Hemmati and Felix Dodds for further information.