Modified Food Crops: Safety first!
modified (GM) foods have failed to gain wide public
acceptance. A heated debate currently centres on the
question: are novel foods environmentally harmless and
safe to eat? Scientists and food safety authorities
are addressing this question within ‘Entransfood’, an
EU-sponsored discussion platform (FP5, Quality of Life).
The project aims to promote the development of adequate
safety testing methods and improved risk communication,
which should ultimately increase consumer acceptance
of GM foods.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been developing new breeds
of crop plants by using molecular methods. Plants have been
modified through the introduction of genes which code for
agronomic traits, such as resistance to diseases or insect
pests, herbicide tolerance, or delayed ripening. Further
improvements are in the pipeline, such as enhanced nutritional
value, salt tolerance or drought resistance.
These attempts to improve crop plants through genetic engineering
have launched an intense public debate. Concern about potential
risks has focused on two clusters of issues: the environmental
impact of the crops; and the health risks of the food derived
from them. Whereas the environmental consequences of GM
crops have to be addressed by ecologists, the potential
health risks are subject to food research. Food producers,
processors and distributors, as well as consumers and politicians
are all wondering: are these novel foods as healthy and
harmless as their promoters claim?
During the debates, some pertinent questions have crystallised,
which researchers are invited to address:
- How can the safety and nutritional value of whole complex
foods be evaluated?
- What exactly is the risk of foreign genes if they transfer
from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used as feed
or food, to the gut microflora of humans and animals?
- How can genetic modifications be detected in raw materials,
processed products and food ingredients?
- What happens to genetically modified raw materials
and processed products throughout the production chain?
- Are current research methods adequate to characterise
specific safety hazards?
- How can scientists, retailers, regulatory authorities
and consumer groups communicate to find a consensus on
risk management strategies?
Researchers from various disciplines have approached these
food safety questions in an innovative way: by establishing
an integrated discussion platform called ‘Entransfood’.
Under the co-ordination of the Dutch organisation RIKILT,
32 participants from food safety research and administration
are exchanging their know-how to advance knowledge and understanding.
This project is financed under the Fifth Framework Programme
(QLK1-1999-01182). The participants will identify research
strategies and tools, evaluate ongoing research activities
in the area, discuss new approaches and establish a permanent
platform for communication. The results will be published
in the form of research papers, position documents and recommendations,
thus giving guidance on answering the questions mentioned
The public debate on genetically modified foods has created
many uncertainties for the groups concerned, for instance:
What kind of problems should be addressed now? What kind
of crop plants will be required in the future?
For food producers
What kind of novel food can be commercialised soon? What
are the prospects for profitability?
For food retailers
What kind of foods will be accepted in the near future?
What signals should be sent to consumers?
Can we really eat these foods without worrying about our
health? Who will guarantee the quality of the food? Will
we still have a reasonable choice of different kinds of
food in future?
How can consumer worries be addressed without stifling research
and economic progress? What criteria should be applied to
the approval of novel food products?
The only reasonable way to deal with these uncertainties
is to demonstrate food safety with adequate testing, using
modern molecular techniques; agree on safety assessment
strategies for GMOs; and improve risk communication. The
stakeholders in new foods are hopeful that at the end of
the road, subject to satisfactory results on safety assessment,
we will attain increased consumer acceptance.
Dr. H. A. Kuiper/Dr. H. J. P. Marvin
PO Box 230
NL-6700 AE Wageningen
Tel: +31 317 475 543