Biosafety worldwide - Historical background

GMOs from the laboratory to the field

With the development of recombinant DNA techniques and their adoption by a growing number of researchers across the world, potential applications of this technology also expanded. It rapidly became apparent that GMOs offered considerable possibilities in different applied fields such as medicine or the agro-food industry. The term "modern biotechnology" was used to distinguish applications arising from recombinant DNA techniques from those known as "traditional" that have been used within our societies, sometimes for centuries.

In the agro-food applications of modern biotechnology, Belgium played a pioneering role in terms of research and development. Indeed, at the end of the 1970s, the work by the team of Professors Marc Van Montagu and Jozef Schell at the University of Ghent made a significant contribution to the development of genetically modified plants. By exploiting the DNA transfer capacity of the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens into certain plants, these researchers showed that it is possible to express "foreign" genes into a plant and its offspring (Van Larebeke et al., 1975​; De Block et al., 1984). This discovery paved the way for commercial exploitation of transgenic plants and the birth of numerous biotechnology companies (such as "Plant Genetic Systems" in Belgium).

This development also resulted in scientific products leaving the laboratory and coming into direct contact with the environment. As long as the genetic engineering developments were taking place in the laboratory, the assessment of potential risks focused on the impact to human health, essentially that of the laboratory staff. The deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms (firstly for experimental purposes and then commercial) rapidly led to new questions about how to assess and manage potential risks linked specifically to this type of application.

It was within this context that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) developed a series of scientific principles and recommendations specifically aimed at the assessment and management of risks linked to applications of recombinant DNA techniques in the environment.