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Genetically modified food in emergencies

Ethiopia, Dried out maize harvest with barely any crop on it

An editorial in the Lancet draws attention to the rapidly emerging issue of using genetically modified (GM) foods in emergency programmes. It highlights the Zambian government's decision to allow maize donated by the United States of America (USA) to spoil in warehouses because it is genetically modified, despite the food crisis in the country. President Mwanawasa has even called GM maize 'poison', saying he is not prepared "to use our people as guinea pigs". In some areas, citizens have rioted and looted to get at the food.

According to the editorial, lack of safety is just one of the charges flying back and forth. Officials in the USA view the arguments as baseless, pointing out that the donated food is the same as what Americans have been eating for years. But critics claim that the USA is promoting biotechnology companies, using the UN to do its protectionist bidding, and offloading surplus food it cannot sell.

Potential advantages of GM foods, achieved through improved crop protection, include insect and virus resistance and herbicide tolerance. Public health might be improved by a greater supply of hardier strains, or by products that have been enriched with vitamins and minerals. Disadvantages are that GM foods may threaten biodiversity and decrease the richness and variety of food. Also, farmers may become dependent on chemical and biotech companies through the use of sterile seed or chemical products that would have to be purchased annually. Health concerns include allergenicity and gene transfer, especially of antibiotic resistant genes from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the gastro-intestinal tract. Furthermore, 'outcrossing', or the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops, may pose indirect threats to food safety and security.

The editorial states that recipients have legitimate worries about being bullied into accepting something they perceive richer nations to have rejected. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), all GM foods currently used have been assessed for safety and "are not likely to present risks for human health". But the editorial questions how sound this evidence base actually is and suggests consumers are probably right to be sceptical at the moment. Regulation varies from country to country, with no international regulatory system, and GM foods are produced in many different ways. WHO rightly cautions that foods must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and by mid- 2003, the international food code (created by the Codex Alimentarius Commission) is expected to spell out specific principles for evaluating individual GM foods. The editorial concludes that if these principles incorporate rigorous scientific analysis, particularly of indirect effects on human health, and if they take a holistic approach toward integrating the disparate effects of GM foods, including their social and ethical aspects, they will be an important step towards strengthening the evidence for safety. Such evidence must be widely communicated to people in the developing and developed world alike.

Show footnotes

Lancet (2002): How safe is GM food? Vol 360, No. 9342, 26 October 2002, editorial, pp 1261

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Genetically modified food in emergencies. Field Exchange 18, March 2003. p13. www.ennonline.net/fex/18/modified

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