For a Constructive Debate on the Benefits and Danger of GM Foods
Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway,
is currently director general of the World Health Organization.
Geneva - Genetic
manipulation of food products provokes strong emotions whenever it is
discussed. So far, this discussion has mainly taken place in Europe and
North America, and for too long it has been portrayed as a conflict between
commercial interests and those of consumers. Trenches have been dug and
positions have been cemented.
But those who argue for or against genetically modified food are being
left behind by developments on the farm as well as in the laboratories.
GM foods are already here, and research on genetic manipulation of food
is taking place in thousands of universities and private companies-not
only in the industrialized world, but also in China, South Africa and
a number of other developing nations.
Seen from a farm in Africa or China, the issues look considerably different
from the perspective of Western supermarket aisles.
Many poor farmers who hear that the GM seeds can increase yields, withstand
drought or protect crops from insects only ask, "When can we get
our hands on these new varieties?"
To take the debate out of the trenches and make it useful, the questions
we must ask are: How do we ensure that the new products are both safe
and beneficial for consumers? How do we ensure that these technologies
will benefit the developing nations and the poorest farmers and consumers?
GM food has the potential to bring with it the largest change in food
production since the green revolution of the 1960s. We may see vitamin
A and iron deficiencies being drastically reduced through GM crops that
are rich in such substances. That is important. Iron deficiency might
affect 4-5 billion people worldwide, constituting a public health condition
of epidemic proportions, while vitamin A deficiency affects between 100
and 400 million children in the world, leaving 250,000 to 500,000 blind
every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.
Adding nutrients to food products is not a new idea. Most countries in
the world have added iodine to salt for decades to avoid goiter and mental
disabilities that are caused by iodine deficiency. Many of the breakfast
cereals and other foods on our table have vitamins added to them.
What is new is that, in this case, scientists are not adding substances-they
move genes so the plants produce their own.
Down the road, some suggest we may even see "bio-pharmaceuticals"-food
products such as fruits that contain vaccines against diseases. In countries
that struggle with low immunization rates, such products may become major
Yet, such claims from the inventors will not be taken at face value.
The efficiency of foods to combat vitamin A deficiency and produce other
positive health effects needs to be compared to other existing methods
to promote health.
We may also encounter serious negative effects. If GM products are more
expensive than existing ones, they may not reach the poorest. If they
are not properly tested, they may have dangerous and unexpected side effects.
If regulatory and norm-setting authorities do not have consumer interests
as their main focus, we may see products that increase profits for large
companies without giving much benefit to those who need these products.
Safety is a key issue, but we must also answer questions about whether
genetically modified food is beneficial and for whom.
European consumers have not been impressed by arguments that they should
eat modified maize and beans because these new varieties are cheaper to
produce and therefore increase profits for the farmers. They may have
been more willing to listen to arguments that, since they are more resistant
to insects, the new varieties need less use of insecticides and therefore
are more environmentally friendly. But these arguments have been largely
countered by those claiming we know too little about the ecological consequences
of the gene manipulations.
A number of statements from regulators, producers and scientists involved
in the area of biotechnology seem to suggest that they feel the problems
originate in the consumer's incapacity to understand and scientifically
compare the risk of GM foods to the risk of traditional food.
To base future deliberations upon this view could be a very serious second
mistake. The first mistake has been not to involve consumers-and other
interested parties-in the risk-analysis process. The process of a scientific
assessment and the following management decisions was considered by many
regulators to be too complicated for the common consumer.
We need to consider much more than safety-related issues. For instance:
Do we know that GM foods with added essential nutrients will actually
prevent nutritional deficiencies better than simpler methods of giving
these vitamins together with vaccinations? Will the new foods be more
affordable than conventional food, and would they be more accessible to
the poorest? Is it acceptable in all or only in some cultures? Would the
production of such new food lead to sustainable development?
What are the effects of GM plants on the environment? Do such plants,
for instance, result in further transfer of genes to traditional plants?
All in all, the scope of any future evaluation should be broad and include
safety, nutritional and environmental aspects as well as efficiency, socioeconomic
and ethical considerations.
Such considerations will be developed with other World Health Organization
partners, including such intergovernmental organizations as the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, UN Environmental Program,
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank
and non-governmental organizations. The leaders of the g-8 have already
pledged to push these issues forward. This is positive.
We must agree on standardized methodology at the international level also
in this area. A regulatory framework should be in place to form pre-market
evaluations-not ad-hoc tests after the products have come on the market.
Whatever we choose to do at national or international levels we should
acknowledge the consumer's right to be concerned as well as to be informed.
New products should not only be safe but also beneficial for consumers
and more efficient than existing products.
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