The long-standing firestorm of debates, scientific discussions, and media coverage over genetically modified foods obviously revolve around a common issue – safety.

Genetically modified foods: how safe are they? 1

It was the same issue that public and various sectors raised when the first genetically modified plant (a tomato with a delayed ripening trait) made its appearance in 1994.

Since then a growing number of biotech crops has been introduced in developed countries and consumed by millions of people all over the world. Reports say that more than 40 varieties of GM crops have been approved for use in the US in the past years.

Why are there questions now on the safety of GM products?

How are GM crops developed?

Genetically modified crops are developed using the tools of modern biotechnology through a process known as genetic engineering. Just like conventional plant breeding, modern biotechnology works on a common goal of producing superior plant varieties with improved characteristics that make them better and more accessible to people. The difference lies in how this is achieved.

In traditional plant breeding, thousands of genes are mixed between two plants. With modern biotechnology, a specific feature or characteristic of the plant is chosen and added to a certain plant. That is why there is Vitamin A enriched rice, a potato with higher starch content, and soybean varieties resistant to chemical herbicides.

There are two primary methods used for transferring genes into another plant genome or genetic make-up. The DNA to be introduced into the recipient plant is coated with tiny particles. Once coated, the particles are physically shot on to plant cells using a “gene gun”. The second method is the transfer of gene from a beneficial bacterium into the DNA of the recipient plant. Since transferring of genes is involved at all times, some potential risks may also cross the GM foods product line.

Allergens

The issues of allergenicity and toxicity seem to be the public’s biggest concern whenever there is a new biotech crop. People fear the possibility that GM crops could contain an allergen that could be accidentally introduced into a food product. Food allergies are adverse reactions to a certain food component that results to an abnormal response of the body’s immune system to a specific protein or allergen in foods.

Food experts and scientists deal with this issue by determining which foods and food components could trigger allergic reactions in both children and adults.

In a joint consultation of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) conducted last year in Rome, the safety and nutritional aspects of GM foods were evaluated based on allergenicity.

The experts used an approach called “decision-tree” formulated by the International Food Biotechnology Council and the Allergy and Immunology Institute of the International Life Sciences Institute (IFBC/ILSI) in 1996 when the issue of allergenicity of GM foods was specifically addressed for the first time.

Using the “decision-tree” approach and some newly-formulated strategies, they carefully assessed the GM foods based on the following criteria: source of the transferred genetic material, molecular weight, products’ stability when heated or processed, sequence homology (the similar characteristics in two animals or plants), effect of pH and/or digestive juices, and prevalence in foods.

After a series of rigorous evaluation and testing, they concluded that foods derived from GM crops are considered safe if the source of the transferred genes has passed the evaluation criteria stated above. They also stressed that GM foods must undergo a pre-market allergenicity assessment. This, according to them, gives consumers an acceptable safety assurance.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) further supported these results by stating that foods and food components known to have allergens are well characterized and documented, so it is unlikely that they would ever be introduced into a GM food. Also, if there are allergenic properties present in GM foods, it is maintained at a very low level and they are rapidly degraded during the digestion process.

Who assures their safety?

GM foods, amidst the heated debates and controversies, are just too valuable to ignore and thus, strictly monitored and regulated at every stage in their development.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the primary federal agency responsible for determining the safety of foods and food ingredients derived from GM crops. FDA regulates GM foods under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which requires that the GM foods meet the same rigorous safety standards as required for other foods.

The role of FDA is said to be more direct and extensive since it consults with the plant developer and reviews the crop’s safety and nutritional components. Likewise, the producer of biotech products should ensure that the foods they offer to the public are safe and have complied with legal requirements. At the end of the consultation and review process, the FDA sends a letter of approval to the developer stating that the FDA is satisfied with the data regarding the safeness of the product.

The role of FDA also courses across marketing the GM products, particularly in the area of food labelling. According to the FDA, GM products are different, thus, they need to be properly labelled.

Here in the Philippines, the “big body” that oversees and monitors the biosafety aspects of GM products is the National Committee on Biosafety, which was created in 1990 by Executive Order 430. It is a multi-sectoral body composed of scientists and representatives of the community responsible for formulating policies and guidelines on various activities related to genetic engineering including research, importation, production, and distribution of GM products.

Truly, the number of new foods derived from biotechnology is growing, so is their requirements for investments for assessing their safety. But more importantly, formulating policies on GM crops safety must be based on an open and honest debate involving a wide cross-section of society according to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application.

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Sources:
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application’s fact sheet (Are foods derived from GM crops safe?); Evaluation of Allergenicity of Genetically Modified Foods, a report paper of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation

By: Mary Charlotte O. Fresco, BAR Digest, April-June 2002 Issue (Vol. 4 No.2)