Archived news articles - 2004

The Straits Times Commentary, 29 May 2004

Frankenfoods - we need to know

By Andy Ho

EVEN as the Asean network for testing genetically modified (GM) food convened here for its first meeting recently, the European Union (EU) lifted its ban on GM food, one that has been in place since 1999. A Swiss company was permitted to sell GM sweet corn - provided it was clearly labelled.

The EU and around 30 countries, including Japan, Australia and New Zealand, mandate GM food labelling. The United States, the world's largest producer of GM food, doesn't. How do those who are against labelling justify their opposition?

Ask Dr Val Giddings, who visited The Straits Times last year to put up a vociferous case that GM labelling was ill-advised. The in-your-face representative of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, a powerful Washington-based lobby group, said labelling would mislead consumers into believing that GM food wasn't safe when it was.

This is indeed the industry's boilerplate argument, which supporters justify by drawing a comparison with traditional crop-growing and livestock-breeding methods, like grafting and interbreeding, where food products aren't labelled as such.

For example, Dr Chan Kay Min, a biologist, argued: 'If you accelerate those processes with GM techniques, people have a problem accepting them. Why?'

The problem with this argument is that traditional methods just select from the existing gene pool of the crop involved, while GM, by contrast, introduces new genetic material into the gene pool. For example, GM plants may be given animal genes. (The industry says GM helps crops fight weeds and insects.)

Wouldn't consumers have a right to know?

In countries where labelling is not mandated, consumers have been unknowingly buying GM food from supermarkets since the mid-1990s. About half the soya bean and corn sold in Singapore is GM. Ditto the ingredients of anything from flour to salad oils, chips to margarine, chicken fed with GM corn to baby food. This is because the three main GM food crops - soya bean, corn, and canola - form the sources of many ingredients used extensively in processing food or animal feed.

If they don't know, can consumers really choose?

Opponents find the industry's argument that labelling will create confusion so people may choose wrongly to be somewhat disingenuous. After all, with education, what a GM food label says will be understood and people can choose accordingly.

Over time, the goodness of GM food might even be proven in the market, so its label may come to signal quality, value, and safety - so consumers will choose it.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, truthful labelling - whether mandatory or voluntary - requires the enforcement authorities to have the capacity to test such food. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) here has a million-dollar laboratory that can do this. Still, Singapore hasn't mandated labelling, waiting for a cue from the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a United Nations food safety group, that seems to put off deciding on the issue at each scheduled meeting.

Meanwhile, the existing law on food labelling here requires that any ingredient which introduces material health risks be declared; failing to do so is considered misleading. If so, the current way of dealing with GM food may already be contradicting existing food laws here - if GM does introduce health risks into certain food.

Proponents say the overwhelming body of science indicates that GM food is safe. As AVA chief executive Ngiam Tong Tau said: 'We do not require food to be labelled as GM, in the absence of evidence that GM foods that have been tested... pose a health risk.'

Opponents say that the absence of evidence of harm is far from evidence of the absence of harm. They say there is a dearth of studies of GM food's potential toxic and allergic effects. For instance, people were told in the mid-1990s that human beings can't catch mad cow disease - but today we know better.

Still, technical arguments on both sides may mean little to most. Not so when the examples are concrete. In 1999, Cornell University researchers discovered that GM corn was debilitating, even deadly, to Monarch butterflies.

In 1988, a Japanese firm used GM bacteria to make tryptophan faster. This is an amino acid (still) used in nutritional supplements. Sold in the US, the supplement caused an epidemic of a novel illness called Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome, marked by debilitating muscle pain. By early 1990 when it was pulled from store shelves, 37 users were dead and 1,500 permanently disabled.

The toxic contaminant comprised only 0.1 per cent of the pill by weight. It was a dimerisation of tryptophan - that is, two molecules of it were chemically linked together, something that doesn't occur in nature. The GM bacteria itself could not be independently studied as the manufacturer quickly destroyed its stocks.

With cautionary tales like these, doubts linger. Yet, if the dispute over labelling is only a stand-in for safety concerns, a pre-marketing approval process for GM food may be the answer - provided the regulator is trustworthy.

In Singapore, new GM products have to go through a special approval process before marketing. What the AVA should do now to further allay consumer fears is regularly disclose what foods it has tested, which ones have GM components, and how the risk-benefit analysis is made in each case.

An extensive and long-term monitoring programme to look for adverse effects would also be reassuring, whether labelling is eventually mandated or not.

Singapore Press Holdings Limited The Straits Times (Singapore).Copyright 2004

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