Archived news articles - 2006

Straits Times (Mind Your Body) - 21st June 2006

Straits Times (Mind Your Body) - 21st June 2006

Critics call them Frankenfoods but genetically modified foods are seen by supporters as science speeding up nature, says Tania Tan.

Bigger, better, cheaper.

The hope in the early 1990s, when genetically modified (GM) crops began to surface, was that such foods would be the much needed panacea to world hunger.

The technology of inserting foreign genes into an organism gave researchers the flexibility to create anything from protein-enhanced potatoes to rot-resistant fruit and even tear-free onions.

The quantity and variety of such crops have mushroomed over the last decade.

Last year, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) reported a total global area of 90 million ha (or about 111 million football fields) of land devoted to GM crops.

According to Singapore's Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC), a group that oversees the R&D, production, use and handling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) here, there have been 70 GM crop plants released commercially since 1992.

These include tomato, soya bean and canola, many originating from the United States and Canada.

For example, GM tomatoes appeared on the US market in 1994. The Flavr Savr tomato lacks the gene that causes rotting, allowing the fruit to stay ripe but not rot for up to two weeks.

Certified safe to consume by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration), the tomatoes were received by consumers with open arms. Most crops have been modified to make them resistant to pests. There are no GM animal products available commercially.

Despite the hype, GMOs have yet to fulfil their potential, as the world remains split over the benefits of test-tube foods.

Some consumers aren't sold.

'Even though they (GM foods) could to some extent alleviate world hunger, there could be other ways like cutting down wastage in affluent countries,' said a letter writer to The Straits Times.

One of the main issues surrounding GM foods is how safe they are to eat, an issue fuelled by media reports labelling such products as sinister Frankenfoods, which had consumers in many countries up in arms.

The furore erupted in 1999 with reports of GM potatoes that were toxic to laboratory rats.

Dr Arpad Pusztai claimed that rats fed with GM potatoes suffered serious damage to their immune systems.

While his findings were later shown to be unsubstantiated, the mud-slinging had left its mark, and the Frankenfood-image stuck. In 2000, over 300 brands of maize products were withdrawn from US shelves when it was discovered that maize crops were contaminated by unapproved GM maize seeds.

Advocates say that genetic modification is no different from the age-old, slower process of selective breeding - farmers choose to grow selected plants or animals with desirable traits to get better offspring.

Associate Professor Chan Woon Khiong, chairman of the GMAC sub-committee for research, said technology simply helped 'speed up the process'.

Dr Hong Yan of the GMAC sub-committee that monitors GMO products here, said that GM crops are put through 'rigorous evaluations' to establish their safety for consumption.

But inserting genes is never a sure-fire thing. Because there is no way of controlling where the genes go, DNA is often transferred in a haphazard manner.

Inserted genes may fail to work, disrupt native genes or worse yet, produce negative effects.

The fear is that such tinkering could result in the production of new toxins or allergens, although there has been no evidence to suggest this to date.

Environmental activists like Greenpeace have similarly levied charges against products such as soya bean and oilseed rape (the raw material for canola oil).

No studies yet on effects These crops are engineered to withstand exposure to a broad spectrum of herbicides.

Environmentalists argue that these crops could damage wildlife because they allow farmers to use potent chemicals that wipe out everything else except their crop.

So far, these claims have little scientific basis, although even staunch GM advocates admit that such foods are a relatively new addition to human diets and so there have been no studies to date on their long-term effects.

To that end, activists may just be shooting blanks.

In an effort to give consumers a choice, some nations have implemented labelling systems - foods containing GMOs must have detailed information on how much and what the engineered components are.

Food authorities in the US, Europe and Japan have introduced labeling laws, while other countries, including Singapore, have opted to wait for international consensus.

The lack of labelling here has drawn mixed reactions, with an ST Forum letter writer calling the decision 'irresponsible'.

The writer said: 'Our authorities should be more forceful and pro-active in protecting consumers' health.'

But labelling comes with a host of its own issues. The GMAC has said that like many other countries, Singapore grappled with implementing a labeling regime, if any, that was 'practical, scientifically derived and effectively implementable'.

The main problem was detecting such foods in the first place as proteins and DNA in foods are often destroyed in the manufacturing and preparation process. So, many foods with GM origins may not be picked up during checks.

The GMAC added that Singapore was a 'net importing country', drawing most of its food from overseas.

Mr Sivakant Tiwari, chairman of its sub-committee for GMO labelling, explained that labelling would cost extra which could jack up prices.

'If shoppers want to avoid GM foods, they can always choose organic products instead,' he suggested.

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