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
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
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
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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