New, genetically modified (GM) foods can contribute to enhancing human health and development, the World Health Organization (WHO) concludes in a new report on GM foods, issued Thursday. However the report also stresses the need for continued safety assessments on GM before they are marketed, to prevent risks to both human health and the environment.
The report "Modern food biotechnology, human health and development" presents the potential benefits and risks associated with GM foods. It finds that GM 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.
However, 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. Therefore, the potential human health effects of new GM foods should always be assessed before they are grown and marketed, and long-term monitoring must be carried out to catch any possible adverse effects early.
The report points out that pre-market risk assessments have been performed on all GM 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. To date, the consumption of GM foods has not caused any known negative health effects.
WHO recommends holistic evaluation
The report also recommends that in future, evaluations of GM 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. 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.
"GM foods should be examined from many standpoints, including the social and ethical, in addition to the health and environmental. 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," says Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO's Food Safety Department.
Each country has different prevailing 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, 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.
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 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United Nations Environment Program to help countries examine the introduction of a given GM 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," adds Schlundt.
The first major GM food was introduced on the market in the mid-1990s. Since then, GM strains of maize, soybeans, rapeseed and cotton have been marketed and traded nationally and internationally in several areas. In addition, GM varieties of papaya, potato, rice, squash, sugar beet and tomato have been released in certain countries. The production of GM crops has increased significantly over the last decade, and although most of this production is centered in relatively few countries, it is estimated that at the end of 2004 GM crops covered almost 4% of the total global arable land.