Beyond the level of national frameworks lies that of international codes which may contain
helpful advice to countries seeking to set up national mechanisms but, in the absence of the
binding force of an international convention, are not formal prescriptions. The demand for these
has come from individual countries where there are concerns that pressures for releases and other
work with GMOs may lead to uneven standards and thence to exploitation of countries that are
perceived rightly or wrongly as having little internal controls. But the demand has also come from
some biotechnology companies themselves who in turn are concerned that if they work in an
unregulated part of the world they may be seen as contemptuous of environmental concerns, and
thus suffer from at the least a loss of public esteem and perhaps ultimately heavy civil penalties.
The UN system is seen as having a special role here, being regarded as neutral in the potential for
conflict between countries: although the UN agency structure has been criticized as providing
opportunities for wasteful competition in the provision of advice it has over the years harnessed
the services of a wide range of specialists. Among its achievements are the Convention on
Biodiversity and the Voluntary International Code of Conduct (VICOC) for the Release of
Organisms into the Environment in 1991 which stipulated that member countries need:
- Appropriate scientific and technical expertise;
- National assessment and decision making structure(s);
- Specific scientific advisory bodies;
- Mechanisms to gather information on local agronomic and environmental conditions;
- Systems for the provision of information to, and education of, the public.
It is perhaps a measure of the progress that has been made that such statements can now seem
self-evident (with the exception of the last - the "education" of public opinion must at the least be
balanced by a willingness to attend to that opinion when expressed).
Two aspects of VICOC have had enduring usefulness. First, it listed as an appendix the
authoritative statutes and guidelines operating in several different countries; this list is now
seriously out of date and a new version would be of great value. Second, it recommended the
establishment of an international Biosafety Information Network and Advisory Service (BINAS),
which has since been set up by the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and
Biotechnology (ICGEB) to provide support through links in key centres (now accessible via
http://www.binas.org). The real importance of international support mechanisms may lie in the facilitation
of regional co-operation between countries with shared problems and in the discovery of
mechanisms for addressing the problems that arise when organisms released in one country are
found to have undesirable characteristics on spreading to another with a different climate.