Archived news articles - 2003

The Straits Times, 28 May 2003
By Andy Ho, Senior Correspondent

GM food: consumers have the right to know

IF YOU catch the average housewife here buying canola oil and tell her it was originally an industrial lubricant, she is likely to turn somewhat pale. Tell her that the canola plant has had its genes modified so its oil may be used for cooking, and she'll ask why there's nothing on the label to indicate so.

Let her know that the same item would be labelled as such when it is on supermarket shelves in Australia or New Zealand, and she'll be outraged.

The European Union (EU) has gone even further, having imposed a ban on imports of genetically-modified (GM) food - mainly from North America - since 1998.

Five years later and two weeks ago, the United States, joined by Canada and supported by Argentina, finally filed a suit at the World Trade Organisation against that EU ban, raising the prospects of an all-out trade war.

The US has maintained that there is no scientific evidence that GM food differs from natural food in its composition, nutritional value or safety - canola oil is just as good as, say, peanut oil - so any labelling is uncalled for and any ban unjustified.

American food producers may voluntarily notify the authorities before they market GM food, but no formal approval is required. In any case, none is issued. Labelling is voluntary.

The EU, however, has maintained vigorously that since the science of genetic modification is so new and negative effects, if any, may take a long time to show up, the best approach is a precautionary one - better safe than sorry, prevention is better than cure. It believes that customers should be provided with the information so they can decide for themselves.

Countries in agreement with the EU - like Australia and New Zealand - have a more stringent GM food approval process. For instance, in these two nations, each GM food must undergo a complete pre-market safety assessment, including a period of public comment and independent expert review before it can be sold.

The Americans say such an approach has caused uncertainty in markets around the world and hurt US farm exports.

In Singapore, local supermarket freezers and shelves are stacked with items like Tyson chicken (raised on US corn that is 70 per cent GM), canola oil from Canada (70 per cent of western Canada's canola is GM), and fermented soya curd from China (worldwide, 51 per cent of soya is GM).

The widespread availability of GM food here raises the question: Do you buy food from nations where genetically modifying food has gone the furthest but which do not label them as such?

Fans of GM food claim that man has been genetically modifying food for centuries - for example, when farmers cross-breed plants and animals for desirable traits. Molecular biology simply enables scientists to do it much faster.

They say GM organisms can replenish the world's scarce living resources with higher yields of better food to alleviate hunger in impoverished areas.

For example, GM salmon breed faster while GM crops need less herbicide, insecticide and fungicide. They can also be engineered to have higher nutritional value, such as GM rice with higher beta-carotene to prevent a kind of blindness prevalent in the poorest countries.

Finally, better yields will also mean brighter economic prospects for poor farming communities.

Detractors, on the other hand, say that such foods may produce unexpected allergies or long-term toxic effects.

The potential environmental impact of GM food is also unknown. GM organisms could disrupt the ecosystem with new species that might wipe out competing species, thus lowering biodiversity.

Opponents also fear that insects that pollinate GM plants could spread the latter's modified genes to other plants and animals, with unanticipated health consequences for those who eat them.

Ms Georgina Cairns, a nutritionist and executive director of the Asian Food Information Centre, a non-profit organisation based here that (seems to) seek to allay such fears, said: 'There's so much published research that shows GM foods are the most well-tested products because regulatory authorities demand it.'
However, informed consumers ask how tight that regulation is, and why not simply label such products?

Associate Professor Chia Tet Fatt of the Nanyang Technological University has applied for a patent in various countries, including Singapore, the US, Australia and Malaysia, for inserting a grape gene into red lettuce to produce resveratol, an anti-cancer chemical.

Yet even this GM food specialist supports the freedom of information and choice. He said: 'I do support mandatory labelling of GM food, along the lines of the laws in the EU, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, China and Thailand.'

Singapore established the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee in 1999 to ensure the safety of GM food. Its head, Dr Ngiam Tong Tau, who is also the chief executive of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, said in March that the Republic supports the precautionary principle and may require GM food producers to seek pre-market approval 'in the very near future'.

He says this will be timed with the Codex Alimentarius Committee issuing its testing and labelling guidelines. The committee was jointly set up by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation in 1963 to oversee international food standards.

Requiring labelling of GM foods cannot come too soon. Safe or not, informed consumers have the right to decide for themselves.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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