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 Genetically Modified Food Crops: Safety first!

Genetically 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.   Graphic element
     
A hot topic
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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?

Points to consider
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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?
The way to go
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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 above.

The long-term goal
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The public debate on genetically modified foods has created many uncertainties for the groups concerned, for instance:

For researchers
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?

For 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?

For legislators
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.

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CO-ORDINATOR
Dr. H. A. Kuiper/Dr. H. J. P. Marvin
RIKILT
PO Box 230
NL-6700 AE Wageningen
Tel: +31 317 475 543
E-mail: entransfood@rikilt.wag-ur.nl

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