12 January - 20 June 2016

Genetically Modified Food - safety and consumer understanding

In the last couple of weeks the debate about GM food has reappeared in the media. The Royal Society president has called for a reassessment of the EU GM ban, and at the same time the society has published a 40 page question and answer report on the subject. A couple of US reports have also investigated GM - one has reported on the negative effects and benefits of genetically engineered (GE) crops, and another published in The FASEB Journal has reported a knowledge gap in consumer understanding of genetically modified food.

In the last couple of weeks the debate about GM food has reappeared in the media.  The Royal Society president has called for a reassessment of the EU GM ban, and at the same time the society has published a 40 page question and answer report on the subject.  A couple of US reports have also investigated GM - one has reported on the negative effects and benefits of genetically engineered (GE) crops, and another published in The FASEB Journal has reported a knowledge gap in consumer understanding of genetically modified food.

In The Royal Society’s recent Q&A report on GM it is stated that “In the United Kingdom half of the population do not feel well informed about genetically modified crops (GM crops) and a further 6% have never heard of them.” The report answers 18 questions about GM food, with questions ranging from “what is genetic modification?” to whether GM is safe, and how GM food is regulated.  It states that currently available GM produce is "at least as safe to eat" as non-GM food.  The guide notes that new GM varieties can potentially cross-breed with closely-related plants however reports that “for GM crops approved by regulators the consequences of cross-breeding have been assessed and judged not to be a risk to health or the environment.”  The Royal Society adds that "Risk assessment and appropriate testing of all new crops, along with ongoing monitoring should mitigate the risks."

At the same time as the report was published, Professor Ramakrishnan, The Royal Society president, has told the BBC that products should be assessed on a case by case basis stating that it is inappropriate to ban an “entire technology.”  However, opponents say the ban should remain stating that GM technology is untested.  The president does acknowledge that there are some “legitimate worries” noting a fear that a small number of multinational corporations could monopolise food production leading to the loss of thousands of varieties of fruits, vegetables and cereals and therefore a need for proper regulation.

A 408 page US report by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine also published recently has examined 900 studies from over the past two decades, as well as information from speakers at public events.  It has concluded that GM foods are safe although the analysts questions whether the technology has actually increased yields. 

The report suggests there are no differences in the chemical composition of genetically engineered foods that “would implicate a higher risk to human health and safety from eating their non-GE counterparts.”   When the committee examined the incidence of certain diseases, comparing rates in North America (where GM foods have been consumed since 1996) and Western Europe, where GM is not eaten as much, there was no evidence to suggest that the crops had contributed to an increase in diseases such as cancer, obesity, diabetes and autism.

The committee also states there is no evidence indicating that any environmental problems have been caused by genetically modified crops.  Insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops were found not to reduce the overall diversity of plant and insect life on farms as long as resistance-management strategies were followed. The transferring of genes from GM plants to a wild species is reported to have occurred, but this has not caused any adverse environment effects. 

The committee concludes that the use of crops has provided some economic benefits for the farmers and can increase their output in certain cases, for instance, by protecting crops from insect damage however the introduction of the crops does not appear to have accelerated the rate at which corn, soy bean and cotton yields were already improving.

Another recent study has investigated US consumers’ understanding about genetically modified food in the US.  McFadden et al. collected data from a nationwide US survey (1004 participants) and found low levels of knowledge.  The researchers found that many consumers claimed to be opposed to GM food, although providing food safety information from the scientific community was found not to affect their opposition.  The consumers were also asked about labelling and the team report that of those sampled, 84 percent supported a mandatory label for food containing genetically modified ingredients. However, 80 percent also supported a mandatory label for food containing DNA, which the scientists’ state would result in labelling almost all food. McFadden states that the "research indicates that the term ‘GM’ may imply to consumers that genetic modification alters the genetic structure of an organism, while other breeding techniques do not.”

RSSL's offers qualitative and real-time quantitative analytical services for GM soya and maize in raw materials and finished products. For more information please contact Customer Services on +44 (0) 118 918 4076 or email enquiries@rssl.com

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