The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit, self-perpetuating society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Upon the authority of the charter granted to it by the Congress in 1863, the Academy has a mandate that requires it to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters.
This report was prepared by a working group representing the Royal Society of London, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Indian National Science Academy, Mexican Academy of Sciences, and Third World Academy of Sciences. The individual members of the working group are listed at the end of this report. The co-sponsoring academies wish to thank the Royal Society of London for providing staff coordination, meeting facilities, and travel support for academy delegates. The Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has discussed this report and commends it to interested parties.
The report also is available online at http://www.nap.edu/html/transgenic
Information about the participating academies is available at http://www.interacademies.net
During the 21st century, humankind will be confronted with an extraordinary set of challenges. By 2030, it is estimated that 8 billion persons will populate the world—an increase of 2 billion people from today 's population. Hunger and poverty around the globe must be addressed, while the life-support systems provided by the world's natural environment are maintained. Meeting these challenges will require new knowledge generated by continued scientific advances, the development of appropriate new technologies, and a broad dissemination of this knowledge and technology along with the capacity to use it throughout the world. It will also require that wise policies be implemented through informed decision making on the part of national, state, and local governments in each nation.
Scientific advances require an open system of information exchange in which arguments are based on verifiable evidence. Although the primary goal of science is to increase our understanding of the world, knowledge created through science has had immense practical benefits. For example, through science, we have developed a more complete understanding of our natural environment, improved human health with new medicines, and discovered specific plant genes that control disease or drought resistance.
Biotechnology can be defined as the application of our knowledge and understanding of biology to meet practical needs. By this definition, biotechnology is as old as the growing of crops and the making of cheeses and wines. Today's biotechnology is
largely identified with applications in medicine and agriculture based on our knowledge of the genetic code of life. Various terms have been used to describe this form of biotechnology including genetic engineering, genetic transformation, transgenic technology, recombinant DNA technology, and genetic modification technology. For the purposes of this report, which is focused on plants and products from plants, the term genetic modification technology, or GM technology, is used.
GM technology was first developed in the 1970s. One of the most prominent developments, apart from the medical applications, has been the development of novel transgenic crop plant varieties. Many millions of hectares of commercially produced transgenic crops such as soybean, cotton, tobacco, potato and maize have been grown annually in a number of countries, including the United States (28.7 million hectares in 1999), Canada (4 million hectares), China (0.3 million hectares), and Argentina (6.7 million hectares) (James 1999). However, there has been much debate about the potential benefits and risks that may result from the use of such crops.
The many crucial decisions to be made in the area of biotechnology in the next century by private corporations, governments, and individuals will affect the future of humanity and the planet's natural resources. These decisions must be based on the best scientific information in order to allow effective choices of policy options. It is for this reason that representatives of seven of the world's academies of science have come together to provide recommendations to the developers and overseers of GM technology and to offer scientific perspectives to the ongoing public debate on the potential role of GM technology in world agriculture.