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Genetically modified food can boost health but risk assessment must continue – UN

Genetically modified food can boost health but risk assessment must continue – UN

Genetically modified (GM) foods can contribute to enhancing human health and development, but continued safety assessments are needed before they are marketed to prevent risks to both human health and the environment, according to a new United Nations report released today.

“We can hope to gain the health and nutritional improvements of GM foods when we can help countries to research how they can control and exploit the introduction of GM products for the benefit of their own people,” the Director of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) Food Safety Department, Jorgen Schlundt, said in issuing the study.

The report – “Modern food biotechnology, human health and development” – presents the potential benefits and risks associated with GM foods, which can increase crop yield, food quality and the diversity of foods which can be grown in a given area, leading to better health and nutrition, thus raising health and living standards.

But some of the genes used to manufacture GM foods have not been in the food chain before and introduction of new genes may cause changes in the existing genetic make-up of the crop. Therefore, the potential human health effects of such foods should always be assessed before they are grown and marketed, and long-term monitoring must be carried out to catch any possible adverse effects early, the report stresses.

It notes that pre-market risk assessments have been performed on all GM products where these products are marketed and that to date no negative health effects have been found.

The report also recommends that in future, evaluation should be widened to include social, cultural and ethical considerations to 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.

The GM food aid crisis in southern Africa in 2002, where a number of countries did not permit GM food aid as a result of mostly socio-economic concerns, illustrates the need for broader evaluations, it notes.

“GM foods should be examined from many standpoints, including the social and ethical, in addition to the health and environmental. If we help our Member States to do this on a national level we can avoid creating a 'genetic divide' between those countries which permit GM crops and those which do not,” Dr. Schlundt said.