A consultation of experts convened at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recommended that any responsible deployment of genetically modified (GM) crops needs to comprise the whole technology development process, from the pre-release risk assessment, to biosafety considerations and post release monitoring.

The FAO said environmental goals must also encompass the maintenance and protection of basic natural resources such as soil, water and biodiversity.

"In this way monitoring could become the key element in generating the necessary knowledge to protect agro-systems, rural livelihoods and broader ecological integrity," the UN organisation said.

Potential hazards associated with GM crops, according to the scientists, should be placed within the broader context of both positive and negative impacts that are associated with all agricultural practices.

The FAO said it is ready to facilitate this process along with other agencies and national and international research centres, encouraging the adoption of rigorously designed monitoring programmes.

The consultation was organised in the light of the controversy and public concern over GM. FAO asked a group of agricultural scientists from many parts of the world to provide clear preliminary guidelines on the most accurate and scientifically sound approach to monitoring the environmental effects of existing GM crops.

"FAO's aim is to provide a tool to assist countries in making their own informed choices on the matter, as well as protect the productivity and ecological integrity of farming systems," said Louise Fresco, assistant director-general of the FAO's agriculture department.

"The need to monitor both the benefits and potential hazards of released GM crops to the environment is becoming ever more important with the dramatic increase in the range and scale of their commercial cultivation, especially in developing countries," she added.