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GM foods safety spotlight

03 Dec, 2013

An editorial and a feature published in Nature Biotechnology in September 2013 raise the question: How safe does a genetically modified (GM) food need to be?

Public’s entrenched negative attitudes

Senior editor Dr Laura DeFrancesco examined the public’s entrenched negative attitudes to GM foods, fuelled in part by regulatory disputes over how to assess a foodstuff’s safety. The editorial complementing her extensive feature argues that, although consumers in America have been eating GM cornflakes, sweet corn, starches and sugars in processed food for over a decade, they remain suspicious of engineered foods and that there is a mistrust of most mainstream sources of data on GM food – these sources are large corporations, regulators, governments and even scientists. Today, GM foods remain the most highly regulated in the world, although apparently foodborne pathogens pose a much greater threat to human health.

No recorded adverse health effects

“It does not matter that no adverse health effects have been recorded from eating them. Nor does it matter that august agencies, such as the World Health Organization, the US National Academy of Sciences, the European Commission or the American Medical Association, have come out with ringing endorsements of their safety. The fact is, negative attitudes remain entrenched and widespread.”

The feature article looks at some of the arguments around GM foods where some say that less regulatory oversight is needed. However, others are concerned that the monitoring of the long-term effects of GM food consumption remains insufficient. Despite decades of research, Dr DeFrancesco reports that little consensus exists among regulators and food safety experts as to what constitutes “proof of safety”.

Food testing studies

Animal-feeding studies, not required by regulatory agencies but considered necessary by some food safety experts to extrapolate effects on humans, are a contentious area. Such studies are usually 90 days but some question whether these studies can reveal long-term effects. Another type of food testing, compositional analysis (a process that involves comparing the concentrations of several dozen analytes from the GM food to non-engineered counterparts) is also under debate – some say that this type of testing is no longer necessary, while others want newer ‘omics’ (transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics) technologies that can gather more comprehensive information on composition of newly created foods.

Without broad consensus among authorities and access to food safety data (much of which remains in the hands of companies and regulators), many consumers remain sceptical of the benefits of GM food.

Over time, the editorial author supposes new generations born into a world where GM food is commonplace will find it less threatening. He points to crops addressing consumer needs as well as producer needs, which cannot be produced via other means.

Golden Rice and GM papaya

“In the Philippines, beta carotene-enriched Golden Rice is currently being prepared for regulatory submission. Golden Rice can provide a useful adjunct to diets in areas like the Philippines, where lack of vitamin A frequently causes blindness, simply because alternative vitamin A supplements are a never-ending expense for families.

“In the 1990s, pioneering efforts led to the creation of two disease-resistant varieties of GM papaya in Hawaii, where the non-GM crop was almost wiped out by ringspot virus. Today, these comprise ~80% of the harvest. If genetic modification had not been available, papaya fruit would likely have disappeared from Hawaii.

“Public perception of GM food will not become more positive overnight. But as more products meet unmet needs, small victories may be won. In the end, necessity may turn out to be the mother of acceptance.” 

A social rather than a scientific decision

Dr DeFrancesco writes that the “length of time over which the same issues have been contested, addressed and revisited and the limited ability of the scientific community to counter misinformation surrounding transgenic food suggest that these products will continue to court controversy”. The problem, it seems, is a societal one – the writer quotes Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman from the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Clearly how much risk and how much uncertainty is accepted is a social decision, a public decision. It is not a scientific decision.”

Get news story: Rice with beta-carotene

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