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Recycling GE Food Myths

06.jul.03, Brenda Cassidy, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

The science of food safety is a cumulative, contextual and complex discipline. Determining the safety of new products, whether produced through GE or conventional technologies, involves multiple assessments, including evaluations of potential risk to the environment, to humans and to animals.

06.jul.03, Brenda Cassidy, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
The European Parliament's approval on July 2 of new labeling requirements for food and feed made with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients is the latest in a series of developments in the ongoing international debate surrounding the use of GE technology to develop improved crop varieties. The U.S. continues to lead the charge at the World Trade Organization (WTO)) against discriminatory practices regarding international trade in GE products. Here in Canada, discussion continues around the potential approval of GE wheat. And in New Zealand, political opposition to the use of GE livestock feeds took a new turn last week, with the curious resurrection of a myth long rejected by the scientific community.
Since the 2001 release of a comprehensive Royal Commission report on the various aspects of genetic engineering (GE) technology and the potential impact of its use, New Zealand's government has engaged in efforts to develop regulatory and policy changes necessary for ensuring that GE technology can be used safely and in a manner that is beneficial to the country as a whole. A current moratorium on the release of GE organisms in NZ is scheduled to end in October 2003.
Among other initiatives, the government is engaged in a public consultation process on GE food labeling. Although a mandatory labeling system for foods containing GE ingredients is currently in place, the Royal Commission report recognized that the information provided by such a system falls short of meeting consumer information needs regarding the use of GE technology in food products.
Such discussions function as political lightning rods wherever they occur, attracting both proponents and opponents of the technology, who invariably attempt to support their contradictory views with what appears to be "sound science’". Whether such evidence bears up to scrutiny is another matter. This past week in New Zealand, Green Party MP Sue Kedgley called for new regulations for GE animal feed, claiming that GE feeds increased mortality rates and affected growth patterns in a Canadian feeding trial conducted on chickens. A synopsis of the feeding trial results, offering similar conclusions, was also published in the U.K.'s Daily Mail.
What Ms. Kedgley failed to mention, and what the Daily Mail glossed over, was that the 1996 study presented conclusions, based on the data collected, that were direct contradictions of their alarmed assertions regarding the risks of GE animal feeds. According to the University of Guelph’s Dr. S. Leeson, who conducted the trial, body weight, feed intake and mortality rate of the animals in the study were unaffected by the feed source, whether GE or non-GE corn.
Did their concerns result from a simple misreading of a complex scientific report? Unlikely, given that opponents to the use of GE technology made similar allegations based on this study in 2001. The U.K.'s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), a committee composed of independent scientists who provide advice to the UK government regarding the release and marketing of GE organisms, examined the evidence and concluded in September of that year that there was nothing to indicate that GE grain used as animal feed posed any additional risk to humans and animals as compared to conventional grain. Mortality rates for animals in the trial fell within expected ranges and growth rate variations could not be confirmed from the data.
Undaunted by ACRE's conclusions, anti-GE groups have continued to point to this study as evidence’ to support their beliefs, continually recycling the story in the hope of reaching a receptive audience. This past week, it worked, and a long-rejected myth became news’ once again.
The science of food safety is a cumulative, contextual and complex discipline. Determining the safety of new products, whether produced through GE or conventional technologies, involves multiple assessments, including evaluations of potential risk to the environment, to humans and to animals.
International scientific expert panels have determined that the use of GE technology in the development of new food crops does not result in unique risks. All new products, however produced, instead must be assessed on a case-by-case basis to ensure their health and environmental safety.
That's the basis of Canada's food safety regulatory system for Plants with Novel Traits (including those developed through GE technology), an approach that has received strong international support. But such an approach -- cautious, measured and objective -- won’t make headlines. It doesn''t lend itself to sweeping pronouncements. It won't capture votes or raise funds for special interest groups. It's the rational voice that often gets lost in the politically driven debate about GE foods.

Brenda Cassidy is a research assistant with the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph