Genetically modified foods are those where the DNA of organisms has been altered. The technology that is used to change the DNA is called gene technology, gene engineering or modern biotechnology. Through this technology selected genes can be transferred from one organism to another even if they do not belong to the same species. GM technology alters the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology is a more general term as it uses organisms or their components like enzymes to make products like wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt. However, when genes from different organisms are combined then the resulting organism is said to be genetically modified or genetically engineered. The same method is used to create GM plants. Medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds and fibres are GM products and are either already developed or developing.
Why are GM foods produced?
In the beginning GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by farmers so they concentrated on making crop innovations that farmers and the food industry in general would appreciate and accept. GM foods are now developed and marketed because they are certain advantageous to the farmers and also to the consumer. They
- Have lower prices
- Are more durable or nutritious
- Developed to improve crop protection
- Crops resistant to insects, pests, diseases and viruses or have increased tolerance towards herbicides
Insect resistance is possible when a gene for producing toxin is placed from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) into the food plant. This toxin is safe for human consumption and is used as an insecticide. GM crops that produce the toxin on their own require lower quantities of insecticides even where there are many pests. Similarly the plants are made resistant to diseases caused by viruses when genes from these viruses are introduced into the plants. If crops have less disease there will be higher yields. Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium conveying resistance to some herbicides. It has been found that where weed pressure is high, the use of such crops has resulted in reduced uses of herbicides.
Why do consumers consider GM foods different?
Traditional foods have been consumed for thousands of years and so consumers consider them to be safe. It is not compulsory for national food authorities to examine foods that have been developed or altered in the natural way. New foods that are developed through traditional breeding are not evaluated according to the risk assessment technique. However, GM foods go through a rigorous risk assessment evaluation. GM organisms as well as GM foods are assessed for their effect on humans as well as animals and the environment as well.
Since the evaluation process is not as strict with traditional foods, prior to marketing, hence consumers view them differently. One of the main objectives of the WHO Food Safety Programme is to help the nations to identify foods that should go through a risk assessment evaluation which includes GM foods and recommends correct assessment.
How are the potential risks to human health determined?
The safety assessment of GM foods investigates the
- Toxicity to see if there are any direct health effects
- If it has tendencies to provoke allergic reaction
- Tests specific components for their nutritional or toxic properties
- Check for the stability of the inserted gene
- What are the nutritional effects that could be associated with genetic modification
- Test to see if there are any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion.
The main concern about GM food remains its effect on human health. Theoretically many aspects have been covered but the three major concerns remain
- allergenicity (allergic reaction)
- gene transfer
Allergenicity: A gene is mostly never transferred from an allergenic food unless it has been proved that the protein product of the transferred gene is not allergenic. Foods that are traditionally developed are not tested for allergenicity. The FAO and WHO have however, evaluated GM foods and no allergic effects have been found in GM foods that are currently in the market.
Gene Transfer: The main concern here is that the gene transfer from the GM foods to cells in the human body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract could affect human health negatively. This becomes more relevant if antibiotic resistance genes that have been used in creating GMOs get transferred to the human body. The chances of transfer are low however, FAO/WHO have recommended that the technology be used without the use of antibiotic resistant genes.
Outcrossing: There is a risk of indirect effect on food safety and security in two ways when
- genes from GM plants move into conventional plants or related species in the wild. This movement is called outcrossing
- there is mixing of seeds from conventional foods and those grown using GM crops
That this risk is real was first seen when maize which was only approved for feed appeared in maize products for human consumption in the USA. Most countries have adopted methods that clearly separate fields within which GM crops and conventional crops are grown. Presently discussions are on about the methods that can be used to monitor GM foods products post marketing so they remain continuously under surveillance for safety reasons.
Environmental risk assessment
Environmental risk assessments cover both GMO and the environment that has the potential to be affected by GMO. For this an evaluation is carried out which studies the characteristics of the GMO and its effect and stability in the environment. This combined with ecological characteristics of the environment in which the GMO will be introduced is also taken into account. The assessment includes unintended effects which could result from the insertion of the new gene.
The environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions. However the main concerns are the
- capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations
- persistence of the gene even after the GMO has been harvested
- risk to non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) from the gene product
- stability of the gene
- reduced spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity
- increased use of chemicals in agriculture
This is why the current investigation is focused on understanding whether GMOs
- will have a negative effect on beneficial insects or if there will be a faster induction of resistant insects
- are likely to lead to the generation of new plant pathogens
- will have any detrimental consequences on the plant biodiversity and wildlife
- will lead to a decreased use of the important practice of crop rotation in certain local situations
- will have movement of herbicide resistance genes to other plants
Are GM foods safe?
Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on an event by event basis. It is therefore not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods. Those GM foods that are currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.
How are GM foods regulated internationally?
The way governments have regulated GM foods is different for different countries. In some countries GM foods have not yet been regulated. Countries where regulations are in place focus mainly on risk assessment of consumer health. Countries which have provisions for GM foods usually also regulate GMOs in general, taking into account health and environmental risks, as well as control- and trade-related issues (such as potential testing and labelling requirement).
Regulations in India
In India, the regulation of all activities related to GMOs and products derived from GMOs is governed by “Rules for the Manufacture/Use/Import/Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, 1989” (commonly referred to as Rules, 1989) under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
The regulations for GM foods have not yet been fully established however, FSSAI intends to meet its regulatory obligations by implementing a safety assessment and approval process for GM foods where the existing regulations can be leveraged within the Government of India, notably within DBT, MoEF and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
The interim process for the approval of Genetically Modified Foods was defined where the central regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) which is supposed to take a decision upon the recommendations of the expert committee on GM Foods from FSSAI, whether to approve a GM Food product or not.
GEAC will ensure that these are in compliance with the Rules, 1989, of the FFSA,2006 as well as any other pertinent obligations that India has under international agreements. The inclusion of non-safety considerations must be carefully considered as a matter of policy and then defining regulations and guidance should be developed. This is essential to ensure that there is consistency and impartiality in how such considerations may be used to inform product-specific decisions.
As of now, GM crop field trials have been approved from the central regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). GEAC said to have approved the trials of 13 transgenic varieties of wheat, sorghum, rice, brinjal, maize, cotton, mustard, sugarcane, chickpea & potato. The existing government’s ‘Make In India’ strategy supports GM Foods and the Centre wants to start the field trials of GM corps before allowing the same for the commercial cultivation. It is important to note here, in case if there are companies, scientists or the research institutions want to start the field trials then they have to take the prior approval of the respective state.
Kind of GM foods on the market internationally
All the genes used to modify crops are derived from microorganisms. GM crops available on the international market have been designed using one of three basic traits which are
- resistance to insect damage
- resistance to viral infections
- tolerance towards certain herbicides
What happens when GM foods are traded internationally?
No specific international regulatory systems are currently in place. However, several international organizations are involved in developing protocols for GMOs. The Codex Alimentarius is developing principles for the human health risk analysis of GM foods. The premise of these principles dictates a premarket assessment, performed on a case-by-case basis and including an evaluation of both direct effects (from the inserted gene) and unintended effects (that may arise as a consequence of insertion of the new gene).
Codex principles do not have a binding effect on national legislation, but are referred to specifically in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement of the World Trade Organization (SPS Agreement), and can be used as a reference in case of trade disputes.
Future GM organisms are likely to include plants with
- improved disease or drought resistance,
- crops with increased nutrient levels,
- fish species with enhanced growth characteristics and
- plants or animals producing pharmaceutically important proteins such as vaccines
GM Products Benefits
As the population is growing fast, ensuring an adequate food supply is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GM foods promise to meet this need in a number of ways, with properties like pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, cold tolerance, and drought tolerance/ salinity tolerance, and tailored for better nutrition and therapeutic purposes.
Crops will have
- Enhanced taste and quality
- Reduced maturation time
- Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance
- Improved resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides
- New products and growing techniques
Animals will have
- Increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency
- Better yields of meat, eggs, and milk
- Improved animal health and diagnostic methods
- Friendly bioherbicides and bioinsecticides
- Conservation of soil, water, and energy
- Bioprocessing for forestry products
- Better natural waste management
- More efficient processing
Increased food security for growing populations
GM foods Controversies
Biggest controversy is Safety
- Potential human health impacts, including allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects
- Potential environmental impacts, including: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity
Access and Intellectual Property
- Few companies could dominate food production
- Increasing dependence on industrialised nations by developing countries
- There could be ‘Biopiracy’ or foreign exploitation of natural resources
- Violation of natural organisms’ intrinsic values
- Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
- Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa
- Stress for animal
- Not mandatory in some countries (e.g., United States)
- Mixing GM crops with non-GM products causes labeling problems
- New advances may be beneficial to interests of rich countries
As per Food Safety & Standards Act, 2006, Genetically Modified Foods are covered under the definition of food. No standards have been defined for Genetically Modified Foods and the manufacture, distribution, sale & import of such food articles would be according to Product Approval Procedure defined under Section 22 of the FSS Act, 2006. However, Genetically Modified Food products are currently not allowed to be sold in India.
* The contents of this document have been prepared from various sources.
Important – The information contained in this article can be used as a reference information on the subject, however the actual guidelines & standards could differ.