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Lancet, WHO Address Safety of GM Foods<I>Lancet</I>, WHO Address Safety of GM Foods

October 31, 2002

2 Min Read
<I>Lancet</I>, WHO Address Safety of GM Foods

LONDON--"How safe is GM food?" asks an editorial in this week's issue of The Lancet (360, 9342:1261, 2002) (www.thelancet.com). The editorial, attributed to The Lancet, reviewed the current international debate on the safety of genetically modified (GM) food, and discussed a document issued by the World Health Organization (WHO)--"20 Questions on Genetically Modified (GM) Foods"--that assessed advantages and disadvantages of such crops.

WHO's document (www.tccouncil.org/reports/who_q&a.pdf) said the advantages include insect and virus resistance and herbicide tolerance, plus the possibility of improving public health through nutritionally enriched foods. Disadvantages of GM crops included the possible threat to biodiversity, increased dependency of farmers on biotech companies, increased allergenicity, gene transfer implications (i.e., antibiotic resistance) and outcrossing. It noted that the Codex Alimentarius Commission is expected to adopt by July 2003 principles for human health risk analysis of GM foods.

"WHO will take an active role in relation to GM foods, primarily for two reasons," WHO's report stated. "On the grounds that public health could benefit enormously from the potential of biotechnology, for example, from an increase in the nutrient content of foods, decreased allergenicity and more efficient food product; and based on the need to examine the potential negative effects on human health of the consumption of food produced through genetic modification, also at the global level."

The Lancet summarized WHO's findings, noting that "according to WHO, all GM foods currently used have been assessed for safety and are 'not likely to present risks for human health.'" However, it asked, "How sound is this evidence base? Consumers are probably right to be skeptical at present."

In addition, the editorial looked beyond the scientific questions, noting that politics, international trade and social/cultural norms will impact the GM debate. "And several uncomfortable observations are hard to ignore: extreme inequalities exist between countries that donate and those that receive GM foods; [and] recipients have legitimate worries about being bullied into accepting something they perceive richer nations to have rejected." It concluded that the Codex principles, if scientifically rigorous and inclusive of the social and ethical aspects of GM foods, could be "an important step toward strengthening the evidence for safety."

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