GENEVA, Switzerland, 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 (GM) foods.
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 early.
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
"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
In addition, GM varieties of papaya, potato, rice, squash, sugar
beet and tomato have been released in some countries.
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
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
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
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 Reserved.