While GM foods are the topic of much debate, the general knowledge of them is very conflicted. With popular opinions being unfavourable, that they can cause a risk to human health. Whilst others state the opposite and that they are the reality for the future of food in order to feed an ever growing population. So we’ve decided to put together the facts behind genetically modified foods to let you all decide for yourselves
The debate surrounding genetically modified (genetically modified or GM as it is commonly referred to) food has been ongoing for more than a decade, particularly within the EU where there are mixed views on whether it is safe or even useful.
GM food is one of the most scrutinised food types from a safety perspective. Though zero risk is not possible for any food, the rigorous safety assessment of GM food by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), along with additional scrutiny by EU Member States, ensures that GM foods allowed on the EU market are as safe as their non-GM counterparts.
A recent study conducted by Science Foundation Ireland revealed that 43% of the Irish public think that genetically modified foods are not safe to eat – a much higher percentage than among the science community, the survey was carried out among 1,000 adults and 238 members of the scientific community last month.
The vast majority of the research on genetically modified (GM) crops suggests that they are safe to eat and that they have the potential to feed millions of people worldwide who currently go hungry.
So what is GM food?
Genetically modified foods or GM foods (GM) as they are more commonly known, (can also be referred to as genetically engineered foods or bio-engineered), is defined as foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering is defined as group of applied techniques of genetics and biotechnology used to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics.
These techniques allow for the introduction of new traits as well as greater control over traits than previous methods such as selective breeding and mutation breeding. GM food ingredients that can be marketed in the EU are primarily derived from GM plants that have been engineered to be resistant to attack by specific pests or be tolerant to certain herbicides. There are no GM animals yet used in food production, though a number are in development at research facilities around the world, with some undergoing safety assessment for possible food use.
A lot public concern is based on the belief that GM foods are not being properly regulated, tested or monitored before reaching super market shelves, a from there our plates. However all GM foods go through a strict regulation process in the EU before ever reaching our shelves.
Authorisation of GM Food in the EU
GM food to be placed on the market in the EU must first undergo a safety assessment by EFSA. Member States and the public have the opportunity to comment on both the application and the EFSA safety assessment before a decision is taken on authorisation. A Standing Committee of experts from Member States decides on whether to authorise a GM food. Where a decision is not reached by the Standing Committee, the application is passed to the Appeals Committee to decide. If the Appeals Committee fails to deliver a decision, the Commission may then adopt the draft proposal. GM food authorisation is for a period of 10 years, which must be renewed if it is to remain on the market. Below is a list of the GM foods that have been permitted access to the EU marketplace, and how they were genetically altered.
GM Food on the Irish Market
GM food ingredients authorised for sale in the EU may be marketed in Ireland with appropriate labelling. However, foods labelled as containing GM ingredients are not readily evident in shops and supermarkets in Ireland, a situation similar to most other EU Member States. Checks carried out on behalf of the FSAI have demonstrated that a small proportion of processed foods may contain authorised GM ingredients below the labelling threshold of 0.9% of that ingredient. (According to the FSAI)
We’ve been altering our food for years
The human race has been selectively breeding crops, and therefore altering plants’ genomes, for thousands of years. For some 60 years scientists have been using “mutagenic” techniques to alter the DNA of plants with radiation and chemicals, creating strains of wheat, rice, peanuts and pears that have become agricultural benchmark. The practice has provoked little objection from scientists or the public and has caused no known health problems.
The difference is that selective breeding or mutagenic techniques tend to result in large numbers of genes being swapped or altered. GM technology, in contrast, enables scientists to insert into a plant’s genome a single gene (or a few of them) from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal.
Although there has not been a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to the genetic alterations, public concerns are growing year on year for their health where GM foods are concerned. This lack of knowledge could be attributed to popularised articles, studies and experiments often lacking in scientific integrity or cold hard facts and are usually promoted through social media or the internet.
An example of one such study would be a team led by Gilles-Éric Séralini, a researcher at the University of Caen Lower Normandy in France, found that rats eating a common type of GM corn contracted cancer at an alarmingly high rate. However it is worth making note that Séralini has been an anti-GM campaigner for years, and critics charged that in his study, he relied on a strain of rat that too easily develops tumors, did not use enough rats, did not include proper control groups and failed to report many details of the experiment, including how the analysis was performed. After a review, the European Food Safety Authority dismissed the study’s findings. Several other European agencies came to the same conclusion. “If GM corn were that toxic, someone would have noticed by now,” Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at University of California Riverside says “Séralini has been refuted by everyone who has cared to comment.”
The benefits of GM crops greatly outweigh the health risks, which so far remain theoretical. The use of GM crops has:
- Lowered the price of food
- It has increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide.
- It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30%, allowing some people to survive who wouldn’t have without it.
- If more widely adopted around the world, the price of food would be less, and fewer people would die of hunger.
- Climate change will make much of the world’s arable land more difficult to farm, GM foods could produce higher yields, grow in dry and salty land, withstand high and low temperatures, and tolerate insects, disease and herbicides.