WHO says GM food may benefit health and environment

Barley genetically modified to resist the yellow dwarf virus. Copyright: Jack Dykinga /USDA Agricultural Research Service

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A report released by the World Health Organization (WHO), yesterday (23 June), acknowledges the potential of genetically modified (GM) food to enhance human health and development.

The report, Modern Food Biotechnology, Human health and Development, notes that pre-market assessments done so far have not found any negative health effects from consuming GM foods.

But the report cautions that “some of the genes used to manufacture GM foods have not been in the food chain before", adding that new genes could interact with a crop's existing genetic make-up in unpredictable ways.

To prevent risks that could result from such genetic changes, the report proposes that the potential effects of such foods on human health should always be assessed before the crops are grown and marketed.

There should also be long-term monitoring to catch any possible adverse effects early, it adds. 

Future evaluation of GM foods, the report proposes, should be widened to include social, cultural and ethical considerations. These include potential social costs of unregulated biotechnology, and the impact that modern food biotechnology could have on societies' health and welfare.

Taking these factors into account would help "ensure there is no 'genetic divide' between groups of countries which do and do not allow the growth, cultivation and marketing of GM products," it says.

The need for broader evaluation was illustrated in 2002 when several southern Africa countries facing food shortages did not permit GM food aid, citing socio-economic, ownership and ethical concerns rather than health or environmental ones, the report notes (see As drought takes hold, Zambia's door stays shut to GM).

Launching the report, the director of WHO's Food Safety Department, Jorgen Schlundt, called for efforts to help poor countries research how they can control the introduction of GM products.

By doing so, he said, countries could gain the health and nutritional improvements of GM foods "for the benefit of their people".

The report also calls for improved communication between scientists and society about the benefits and risks associated with technologies such as genetic modification. 

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) estimates that 81 million hectares of land are currently planted with biotech crops globally.

Read more about GM crops in SciDev.Net's GM crops dossier.