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Human and Environmental Safety of GM Crops

  • Foods derived from approved biotech crops are as safe, if not safer, for humans than conventional or organic foods.
  • Foods produced using biotechnology are stringently tested and regulated for human safety.
  • Biotech crops that have been approved for cultivation are safe for the environment.
  • Biotech crops are an important tool for sustainable agriculture and for biodiversity, helping to reduce the environmental footprint of farming.
  • Biotech crops are stringently tested and regulated for environmental safety.

Biotech crops are the most extensively tested food crops available today. They are more stringently tested than any other food in history, and are tightly regulated both before they reach the marketplace and once they are on sale.  This ensures that they are at least as safe, if not safer, than conventional foods.

There have been no scientifically-proven cases of biotechnology adversely impacting food safety or human health – despite claims to the contrary. Biotech crops are stringently tested and regulated for human and environmental safety.  Many well-respected scientific bodies and regulatory agencies have declared their confidence in the safety of biotech crops.  These organisations include the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, as well as national regulators and academies in France, China, Brazil, India and Mexico.

The science underpinning biotechnology is extremely advanced and more precise than conventional techniques used to produce food.  Testing involves measuring the availability and concentration of all nutrients in food – such as proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fats and oils – to ensure that they fall within the normal range of variability for the food.  Levels of naturally-occurring toxins and anti-nutrients found in all foods are tested and compared.  Immunological testing is also conducted to ensure that new potential allergens are not present.   In contrast, there are relatively few analytical studies done on conventional varieties of crops during development.

Plant biotechnology is safely delivering enormous environmental benefits around the world.  By helping to increase crop yields per hectare, while at the same time increasing efficiency of water use (improved “crop per drop”) and helping to protect biodiversity, biotechnology is a key tool for minimising the environmental footprint of modern agricultural practices.

Governments and technology developers have invested heavily in understanding the behaviour of these crops as they grow in the field, and afterwards as they enter the food/feed chain.  Careful risk assessments are conducted before biotech crops can be planted in the open, even on a trial basis.  It is important that the risk assessments continue to be based on science and conducted in a case-by-case manner, in order to maximise the benefits biotechnology can bring and minimize any risks.


Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is a safety check that is carried out before a new product is used.  It looks for possible hazards and determines whether these are ‘likely’ to occur, or ‘very unlikely’ to occur.  If the benefits of the new product are large enough to warrant some risk, then the risk assessors look for ways to manage the risk, so that it will be less likely to happen.  If, after careful assessment, the risk is considered to be too great, then the new product is not approved for use.  If the risk is ‘unlikely’ and can be managed, then the product is approved so that people can enjoy the benefits it offers.

Separate assessments and decisions are made for each new organism, because the potential hazards can be different.  For this reason it is not possible for regulators or scientists to say that all genetically modified organisms are safe.  A risk assessment enables a safety decision to be made on each new organism and the products it produces.

Risk assessments are carried out by the developers of new products.  For some products, like genetically modified crops, governments carry out an independent assessment and give approvals for the use of new GM products.  For living organisms that will be planted, grazed or released into the environment, an environmental risk assessment is carried out.  If the product will enter the food or feed chain, then a food safety assessment is also carried out.  These risk assessments inform decisions on whether or not to proceed with the release and use of modified plants, animals and microbes.

National Regulations

Most national governments have established regulations to help ensure the safe and responsible use of new technology, including genetic modification. Not all countries have implemented these regulations, however. National biosafety regulations generally require that research and development is carried out safely, that the products are tested thoroughly before they are used. In most countries, regulatory approval is required before some biotechnology products reach the market.

The safety of products of modern biotechnology generally falls under existing animal, food and plant regulations. Many countries have additional, specific biosafety regulations to ensure risk assessment reviews for genetically modified organisms and some countries include a socio-economic review to identify any social or economic risk that may result from the use of new products.

The wide range of products derived from genetic modification means that many government agencies are involved in safety assessments and approvals. For example, agricultural agencies review plant and animal safety; health agencies regulate food and medicine safety; environmental agencies review environmental impact; trade and industry agencies monitor economic impact; forestry agencies review the impact of genetically modified trees and tree products, etc.

What is BioSafety

Biosafety is a term used to describe efforts to reduce and eliminate the potential risks resulting from biotechnology and its products.
After more than 12 years of safe use, it is fair to conclude that the inherent safety of the technology and the case-by-case safety assessments conducted by regulatory authorities around the world have ensured that foods from GM crops are as safe to eat as any food.
Planting GM cotton has improved yields by 10–30%, pesticide usage has fallen 50–80% and profitability for small farmers has improved significantly. Pesticide poisonings have decreased by about 75% among farmers using GM cotton.
Insect-resistant (Bt) maize has lower amounts of fumonisins than conventional maize because there is less insect damage to maize kernels on which the fungi can grow.
After years of research and evaluation on potential hazards, the published scientific research demonstrates that transgenic crops pose no environmental hazards unique to them.
Before any GM crop can be marketed, regulatory authorities must be satisfied that it will not make existing agricultural problems worse or create new ones.
The aim of any national biosafety legislation should be to provide a safety framework for the protection of humans, animals and the environment and to establish acceptable standards for risk assessment for the application of biotechnology.

International Regulations

International regulations become important when farmers plan to export or import genetically modified crops. In addition to the World Trade Organisation requirements for fair trade and pest and disease control, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety has specific requirements on movement of living GMOs. For plants, this includes seed, grain, tubers, seedlings, or cuttings that could grow if planted in the importing country. The Cartagena Protocol requires that the importer of living GMOs must get advanced agreement from the importing country authorities for the movement of living GMOs into every country. This decision requires a risk assessment that considers safety to human health and to the environment, and so these decisions can take time.

For commercial farmers planning to export genetically modified seed, grain or plants, a lot of paper work has to precede the first shipment and several months may be needed for this. Once the first shipment has been approved, the Protocol does not require additional risk assessments, but some countries do. It is up to the importer to ensure that each importing country’s requirements are met.

For smallholder farmers, the most likely ‘shipment’ of GM products across international borders will happen with informal movement of plant material and harvests between communities on each side of a national border. National regulators usually take informal movement across international boundaries into account when they first approve the planting of new GM crops. Some authorities require labelling for planting material, farmer education and sometimes the signing of farmer agreements, if they wish to limit the amount of planting material that moves informally across borders.

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