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3-Food: The Lancet: "How safe is GM food?"

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TITLE:  How safe is GM food?
SOURCE: The Lancet, UK, Editorial, Volume 360 (9342)
DATE:   Oct 26, 2002

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How safe is GM food?

Surely the donation of many thousands of tonnes of emergency food supplies 
should alleviate the suffering of millions of hungry people, should it not? 
Not, it turns out, when the food has been genetically modified.

In southern Africa, hunger now affects some 14 million people. The USA has 
donated GM maize to help alleviate the crisis, but in Zambia the food rots 
in warehouses because the government believes it unsafe. President Levy 
Mwanawasa has even called GM maize "poison", saying he is not prepared to 
"use our people as guinea pigs". In some areas, citizens have rioted and 
looted to get to the food.

Lack of safety is just one of the charges flying back and forth. Officials 
in the USA, where GM foods have never been as controversial as in Europe, 
view the arguments as baseless, pointing out that the donated food is the 
same that Americans have been eating for years. But critics claim that the 
USA is promoting biotechnology companies, using the UN to do its 
protectionist bidding, and offloading surplus food it cannot sell. And 
African maize dealers are said to be hoarding crops in anticipation of 
higher prices.

The African crisis is only part of the ongoing debate over GM foods. Last 
week a 4-year ban on the sale and use of GM foods in the European Union 
came to an end. But consumers may well continue to oppose the widening 
introduction of GM foods into everyday life. Concerns are so pervasive that 
WHO has just issued a document-- 20 Questions on Genetically Modified (GM) 
Foods-- which attempts to assess advantages and disadvantages. The 
advantages, achieved through improved crop protection, include insect and 
virus resistance, and herbicide tolerance. Public health might be improved 
through a greater supply of hardier strains or through products that have 
been enriched with vitamins and minerals, such as "golden rice", to which 
vitamin A has been added. Disadvantages, though, are that GM crops may 
threaten biodiversity, decrease the richness and variety of foods, and make 
farmers dependent on chemical and biotech companies, through the use of 
sterile seed or chemical products that would have to be purchased yearly. 
Health concerns include: allergenicity; gene transfer, especially of 
antibiotic-resistant genes, from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the 
gastrointestinal tract; and "outcrossing", or the movement of genes from GM 
plants into conventional crops, posing indirect threats to food safety and 

The GM foods issue is made more complex by factors that go far beyond 
science, including politics, international trade, and social and cultural 
norms. And several uncomfortable observations are hard to ignore: extreme 
inequalities exist between countries that donate and those that receive GM 
foods; recipients have legitimate worries about being bullied into 
accepting something they perceive richer nations to have rejected; and the 
international community is split over whether food or money constitutes 
more appropriate aid.

Without good data, the precautionary principle has often guided decisions 
about food safety. According to WHO, all GM foods currently used have been 
assessed for safety and "are not likely to present risks for human health". 
But exactly how sound is this evidence base? Consumers are probably right 
to be sceptical at present. Because regulation varies from country to 
country, with no international regulatory system, and because GM foods are 
produced in many different ways, WHO rightly cautions that foods must be 
assessed on a case-by-case basis. Thus, by mid-2003 the international food 
code created by the Codex Alimentarius Commission is expected to spell out 
specific principles for evaluating individual GM foods. If these principles 
incorporate rigorous scientific analysis, particularly of indirect effects 
on human health, and if they take a holistic approach toward integrating 
the disparate effects of GM foods, including their social and ethical 
aspects, they will be an important step towards strengthening the evidence 
for safety--evidence that must be widely communicated, among people in the 
developing and developed worlds alike.


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