Genetically modified foods are safe, but Europe is much stricter than the U.S. in approving them, says expert

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Are genetically modified (GM) foods safe?

"So far, we have not detected a risk for humans or the environment, not yet," said Harry Kuiper, chairman of the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Food Safety Authority, Oct. 16. He was responding to an interview question before speaking at Cornell as part of the Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

The European Union has much stricter controls on the release of GM foods than does the U.S., and EU member states have almost always voted against GM crops, Kuiper said.

Based on studies, he said, GM foods are "as safe as any other conventional food." In fact, because of the detailed and wide-ranging tests done on GM foods, Kuiper said he thinks they are the "best investigated foods ever."

Potential risks to the public, he noted -- none of which have led to major problems thus far -- involve the possibility that when scientists add or silence genes in a plant, such changes "could lead to new toxins or to the increase of existing toxins in the plant."

Another potential concern, he said, are unknown allergens that could arise when creating foods from plants in which genes have been inserted from other species. "If you take genes from a source that is not known as a food source then you have to be very careful whether that new protein could be allergenic," he said.

Even though no problems have been detected with GM foods, European and American use of GM crops varies widely, he said. In 2006, the United States grew 54.6 million hectares (135 million acres) of GM crops, compared with only 110,000 hectares (272,000 acres) in Spain, France, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Germany combined in 2007. This large difference, according to Kuiper, is partly due to the complex approval process that GM crops face in Europe.

"In Europe we have an obligatory system for the release of genetically engineered foods," said Kuiper. "For the release of a GM food on the market in the U.S. there is some kind of consultation with the [Food and Drug Administration], but it is not an obligatory system as far as I am informed. But for environmental release, the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] has some kind of obligatory system."

Once a scientific evaluation is done, then a proposal for a new crop goes to a European Commission, and if approved, the European member states vote and require a two-thirds majority for approval. "The European system is one of the most detailed in the world," he said.

The United States could improve its policy by better distinguishing between GM animal feed crops and food crops, said Kuiper, pointing out that GM starling maize was approved in the United States for feed use but not for food use, but six months later it was detected in taco shells, which potentially could have caused allergic reactions.

"If you approve something for feed, it goes in the food chain through mixing [during processing and shipping] and because of errors," said Kuiper. "In Europe we don't discriminate between feed and food," regarding approvals of GM crops.

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Krishna Ramanujan