Food safety

WHO study on modern food biotechnology, human health and development


The World Health Organization attaches high priority to the safe use and application of modern biotechnology to food production and processing. These applications present opportunities and challenges for human health and development.

Despite a number of national and international initiatives, the use and development of modern food biotechnology remains a controversial global issue. Modern food biotechnology promises a new range of products and processes proclaimed to be for the public good, some related to agricultural benefits others directly or indirectly to health. WHO would like to assess how these products currently impact human health and the development of society at large and how they will do so in the future.

The Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases (formerly the Food Safety Department) within WHO finalized in June 2005 an evidence-based study of the implications of modern food biotechnology on human health and development. Impetus for the study arose from a resolution of the fifty-third World Health Assembly in May 2000 that WHO should strengthen its capacity to support Member States establish the scientific basis for decisions on modern food biotechnology, and to ensure the transparency, excellence and independence of opinions delivered.

In addition, from the OECD/UK conference'New Biotechnology Food and Crops' held in Bangkok, Thailand, July 2001 the importance of considering all aspects relating to the use of modern food biotechnology emerged.

The study was aimed at complementing the efforts of other international agencies by collating already existing information and analyzing it as it pertains to the WHO mandate. To enhance transparency in the process, WHO collaborated with FAO and involved an array of stakeholders and interest groups. The primary aim was to create an accessible knowledge base to assist Member States, international standards bodies and other stakeholders to achieve transparent and inclusive consensus on the evaluation and application of biotechnology. Finally, WHO sought to establish an evidence-based foundation for a more holistic evaluation of biotechnology in the future.

This study was looking to place the overall contribution that modern food biotechnology can make to human health and development in context. It includes the application of modern food biotechnology to microorganisms, plants and animals. An integrated (holistic) approach was adopted to identify the key issues impacting directly or indirectly on human health and development, and establish the available evidence.

The main issues on which evidence was invited:

  • Research and Development;
  • Impact on human health (food safety and environmental effects);
  • Food security, cost and access to the technology;
  • Ethical, legal and social issues;
  • Capacity-building initiatives.

Data were gathered through extensive literature, Internet and enquiry-based research supported by approximately 120 responses to a questionnaire which was circulated to a broad range of stakeholders and experts in May 2002. The comments received from an electronic stakeholder discussion held between January and April 2003 have also been incorporated. The opinions of participants comprising representatives from government, consumer, industry, research, non-government organizations (NGOs) from developed and developing countries, who attended a stakeholder meeting on 5 and 6 June 2003 in Geneva, were also included.

The report produced from this consultation process will be used directly by WHO in planning its future activities with regard to the use and application of modern biotechnology in human health and development.