WHO: Transgenic Foods Safe So Far, but Testing Essential

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.

Schlundt

Director Food Safety Department, World Health Organization, Dr. Jorgen Schlundt (Photo courtesy BCPC)
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 not welcome.

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."

farmer

U.S. farmer examines an ear of genetically modified corn. Most of the world's transgenic corn is grown in the United States. (Photo courtesy Syngenta)
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 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 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.

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Genetically modified corn appears similar to traditional corn, but it has been engineered for selected traits such as insect resistance or tolerance to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
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.