June 23, 2005 (ENS): The consumption of genetically
modified foods has not caused any known negative health
effects to date, the World Health Organization (WHO)
says in a new report issued today. Still, the UN agency
stresses the need for safety assessments before new
transgenic crops are marketed, to prevent risks to human
health and the environment.
The report, "Modern food biotechnology, human
health and development," presents the potential
benefits and risks associated with genetically modified
Genetically modified foods can contribute to enhancing
human health and development, the WHO report says, but
"some of the genes used to manufacture GM foods
have not been in the food chain before and the introduction
of new genes may cause changes in the existing genetic
make-up of the crop."
"GM foods should be examined from many standpoints,
including the social and ethical, in addition to the
health and environmental," said Dr. Jorgen Schlundt,
director of WHO's Food Safety Department.
While the biotechnology industry and other international
groups such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,
the International Council for Science, as well as European,
the French, British, and United States agriculture and
medical organizations say that genetically engineered
foods are safe for human and animal consumption, many
consumers do not share their confidence.
Communities in Europe, Asia, and the United States have
banded together to fight genetically engineered food
products at local and national levels. Over 100 regions
of Europe and 3,400 local authorities have told biotech
companies that their genetically engineered crops are
In the future, the WHO report recommends, evaluations
of genetically modified foods should be widened to include
social, cultural and ethical considerations, to help
ensure there is no "genetic divide" between
groups of countries which do and do not allow the growth,
cultivation and marketing of GM products.
"If we help our Member States to do this on a
national level we can avoid creating a 'genetic divide'
between those countries which permit GM crops and those
which do not," said Dr. Schlundt.
Currently, evaluations primarily focus on the agronomic
ramifications and on possible health effects. The GM
food aid crisis in southern Africa in 2002, where a
number of countries did not permit GM food aid as a
result of mostly socio-economic concerns, illustrates
the need for broader evaluations.
WHO finds that transgenic foods can increase crop yield,
food quality and the diversity of foods which can be
grown in a given area. This in turn can lead to better
health and nutrition, which can then help to raise health
and living standards.
But the potential human health effects of new GM foods
should always be assessed before they are grown and
marketed, the report emphasizes, and long-term monitoring
must be carried out to catch any possible adverse effects
Each country has different social and economic conditions,
and the people have different histories of what they
eat and what food means in their society. "All
of these factors can affect how GM foods will be regarded,"
the report acknowleges, "and taking proper account
of these concerns will affect the long-term acceptance
or rejection of GM foods and their possible health benefits
and potential risks."
There are now 15 international legally binding instruments
and nonbinding codes of practice which address some
aspect of GM organisms.
While many developed countries have established specific
pre-market regulatory systems requiring the rigorous
case-by-case risk assessment of GM foods prior to their
release, many developing countries lack the capacity
to implement a similar system.
WHO is working with partners such as the UN Food and
Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Environment
Programme to help countries examine the introduction
of a given transgenic food from all angles.
"We can hope to gain the health and nutritional
improvements of GM foods when we can help countries
to research how they can control and exploit the introduction
of GM products for the benefit of their own people,"
said Dr. Schlundt.
Since the mid-199s, genetically modified strains of
maize, soybeans, rapeseed and cotton have been marketed
and traded nationally and internationally.
In addition, GM varieties of papaya, potato, rice,
squash, sugar beet and tomato have been released in
The production of GM crops has increased over the last
decade, and although most of this production is centered
in relatively few countries - the United States, Canada,
Brazil, and Argentina - it is estimated that at the
end of 2004 GM crops covered almost four percent of
the total global arable land.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization, winding up
its annual conference Wednesday in Philadelphia, said
that since genetically modified foods were introduced
to U.S. markets in 1996, "not a single person or
animal has become sick from eating biotech foods."
The first biotech commodity crop - an insect resistant
variety of corn - was grown and sold in 1996.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined
that biotech foods and crops are as safe as their non-biotech
counterparts. The American Medical Association and the
U.S. National Academy of Sciences have also declared
biotech foods safe for human and animal consumption.
Today, it is estimated that at least 70 percent of
processed foods on U.S. grocery store shelves contain
ingredients and oils from biotech crops - the most frequently
found are corn, soybean, cotton and canola.
The WHO report points out that pre-market risk assessments
have been performed on all genetically modified products
where these products are marketed. "In this regard,
GM foods are examined more thoroughly than normal foods
for their potential health and environmental impacts,"
the report states.
In the United States, biotech crops undergo intense
regulatory scrutiny covering their growth in the fields
to their delivery in the marketplace to ensure that
they are safe for consumption and do not pose any environmental
hazards, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
The industry organization saysBiotech crops and their
food products are regulated by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration and
the Environmental Protection Agency. Testing of biotech
crops before they are introduced to market generally
takes about six to 12 years at a cost of $6-12 million,
the industry organization said.
But consumers have many doubts and concerns.
"Our concern with genetically modified foods is
not what we know about their safety, but rather what
we don't know," says Mark Hathaway, The United
Church of Canada's program officer for biotechnology
and food security said June 1.
Hathaway says this uncertainty has led the United Church
to call on the Canadian government to declare an immediate
moratorium on the approval of new genetically modified
food varieties until a more rigorous and independent
system of approving, regulating, monitoring, and labeling
GM foods has been fully implemented.
Organic farmers worry that pollen drift from nearby
genetically modified crops could contaminate their organic
varieties. Consumers worry that the modified proteins
in transgenic foods could cause health problems, such
as allergies, and problems as yet unknown.
These fears were heightened by a May 22 report in the
British newspaper "The Independent" that rats
fed on a diet rich in genetically modified maize, or
corn, developed abnormalities in internal organs and
changes to their blood.
The rats were part of research carried out by U.S.
based food giant Monsanto, the results of which have
not been disclosed to the public.
The Monsanto research showed that some rats fed on
genetically modified maize had smaller kidneys and variations
in the composition of their blood, while the rats fed
on normal maize were healthy.
Monsanto says it cannot make the full report public
because it contains information that might be of commercial
use to competitors.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights