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Article: Are foodstuffs derived from genetically modified organisms safe?

Is present legislation adequate to ensure safety? These are legitimate concerns in the minds of many consumers.

The Directorate: Food Control of the Department of Health, as member of the Executive Council for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in terms of the GMO Act, 1997 (Act No. 15 of 1997) has a specific responsibility to ensure food safety. The Directorate feels confident that foodstuffs developed from genetically modified crops (GM-foods) approved in South Africa (maize, cotton, soybeans) are as safe as their conventional counterparts.

To give perspective on GM-food safety a number of questions are answered, taking into account:

• The guidance from international bodies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization
   (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO);
• The existence of government strategies, legislation and structures that oversee food
   safety issues;
• Existence of scientific data; and
• Issues that are often expressed in the media as consumer concerns.

What is the role of international bodies in assuring the safety of GM foods?

FAO and WHO play a significant role, especially by means of Codex Alimentarius Commission. Codex gives guidance on food safety issues based on science. In 2003 it approved the principles and a number of guidelines for the conduct of safety assessments of these foods. Many countries, including South Africa, are implementing the guidelines.

What is the role of the South African government in the approval of these GM foods?

To receive approval for testing, production and trading in GM crops an applicant has to submit information as specified by government. Various procedures for dealing with genetically modified organisms are stipulated in the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 (Act No 15 of 1997). The Act is based on the most recent and internationally accepted approach for dealing with risks. This approach is to separate the risk assessment (mainly the scientific technical part) from the decision making part which includes also the management of risks. Six relevant government departments are represented on the Council, each within their specific mandates. The Advisory Committee consists of a number of scientists who are experts in their respective fields. A group of reviewers are also appointed to assist the advisors. Experts not on the Committee could be consulted, including internationally acknowledged experts.

What are GM foods?

GM food is the popular terminology used for foods derived through modern biotechnology as defined by the FAO and WHO. But these foods are not modified, they are obtained from modified organisms e.g. from grain crops. The techniques that are used to develop these organisms emerged about 25 years ago and are therefore relatively new. The development of GM-foods is based on the knowledge and experience, for example, with fermentation techniques (cheese making, beer making), tissue culture, plant selection and plant breeding. The products from modern biotechnology include vaccines, hormones, enzymes used in food processing, industrial applications (detergents), waste processing, and crop plants.

What are the principles that govern safety assessment?

All assessments are done case-by-case and step-by step. As with all new experiences comparisons with known foods are constantly made. This approach, which is the starting point of risk assessment of genetically modified food, is often called “substantial equivalency”.

What are the most important matters that are dealt with in risk assessment?

The “modern” part of this technology is the transfer of the new gene from a donor to the recipient organism and characterization of the genetic modification. It is important that the new gene(s) is stably inserted in the genome of the host plant. This is confirmed with modern biotechnology techniques in the laboratory but also with conventional practices. This requires laboratory experimentation and familiarity with plant breeding practices.

Field trials also present the opportunity to scrutinize for unwanted or unexpected effects by having a closer look at the components – carbohydrates, protein, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and natural toxins. These trials are statistically designed to include a range of environmental influences. The results are compared statistically with historical data as well as with globally available data. Special attention is given to plants that contain allergens.

Proteins (or enzymes) are the products of gene expression. The presence of the proteins is followed throughout the whole plant. It is important to know how much of the new protein(s) is present in the edible parts. The new protein is extensively researched through toxicological assays according to international standards. A thorough assessment is also conducted to determine possible allergenicity of the “new” protein.

An example of proteins that are natural pesticides that have been assessed, are those from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Another example is the proteins from genes involved in the metabolism of herbicides resulting in tolerance to these chemicals.

These tests are exhaustive. Never before were so many tests conducted to ensure food safety.

How is exposure assessed?

The major food products such as maize meal, are individually assessed. The amount of exposure is determined by taking into consideration the concentration of the new protein in the edible parts of the plant and the amount consumed per day by the people.

Are the long-term effects assessed?

The approach is to compare with the known conventional counterpart and then to focus on differences such as the new protein. After having considered all these, the conclusion for those foods that are presently on the market, is that these foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts. This means that the long-term effect would be as for the conventional counterpart.

What is the risk of antibiotic resistance?

In order to select for and trace the novel gene, a marker gene is inserted. Antibiotic resistance marker genes have often been used. These could be present or removed during the development. The concern is that the resistance could be transferred to the human gut organisms. The chance of such a gene to overcome all the barriers from food processing, digestion, competition with other genes, compatibility and entering the gut bacteria genome, is theoretically infinitesimally small. Nevertheless, genes for resistance to clinically used antibiotics, is to be phased out.

What is the conclusion: are these foods safe?

GM-foods that are on the market approved by government are as safe as their conventional counter parts. This is also the conclusion by other countries that had approved these foods. The European Parliament came to the conclusion after 15 years of research, spending about 65 million dollars on more than 80 projects, that the foods currently on the market are safe as the conventional counterparts and perhaps even safer.

Consumers should realize that the risk assessment phase is also the phase of research and development before the food is released for sale. Consumer concerns about food safety are addressed during this assessment phase.

Consumers benefit directly and indirectly from modern biotechnology. The insect resistant GM plants are less infected by pests and therefore require less pesticide application and may have less secondary fungal infection that causes mycotoxin contamination. The herbicide tolerant plants need less herbicides with persistence in the soil to control weeds and therefore less herbicide residues. In future foods with more direct benefits to the consumer such as improved vitamin content could be expected.
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