Few issues related to the use of genetic technology have organized as much stir as GM foods. Environmental organizations have undertaken different campaigns warning of the possible risks that the dissemination of such foods entails in the health of people and the environment, even without providing conclusive scientific evidence.
What are transgenic foods?
Transgenic foods are those that come from genetically modified plants by techniques in which man alters the genetic material of organisms (DNA) in an artificial way, that is, not usually produced in nature.
This technology receives different names, such as modern biotechnology, genetic technology, recombinant DNA technology or simply genetic engineering, and basically involves the transference of selected genes from one organism to another organism or even to another unrelated species.
Why have these foods been devised?
The need to have more food because of the large increase in the world population and the demand to promote food production in countries where weather conditions prevent the availability of crops throughout the year – and, instead, Providing food in the required quantity and conditions – are the main reasons why these food production techniques have been created.
Currently there are more than 50 transgenic foods marketed, most in the USA. And Japan. Of these, only three (tomato, soy and maize) are marketed in Spain.
What conditions must these crops meet?
The initial objective to develop this type of plants was to improve the protection of these foods, through an increase in resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses, or through a higher tolerance to herbicides.
The basic safety assumptions required of these foods are:
- Which have a nutritive value equivalent to that of the unmodified plant.
- Must not alter absorption.
- In the long term should not cause genetic alterations in consumers.
- Should not lead to toxic products or allergies.
How are possible risks to human health determined?
The evaluation of the safety of these foods investigates:
- The direct effects on health, ie toxicity.
- Tendencies to provoke allergic reactions.
- Specific components believed to have nutritional or toxic properties.
- The stability of the inserted gene.
- The nutritional effects associated with genetic modification.
- Any other effect that could result from genetic insertion.
What are the main issues of concern to human health?
The possibility of causing allergic reactions: no allergic effects have been found in relation to transgenic foods currently on the market, following extensive controls.
Gene transfer: the genetic transfer of these transgenic foods to cells of the human body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract could cause concern if the transferred genetic material negatively affects human health. Although the probability of transfer is low, emphasis has been placed on the use of technology that does not require antibiotic resistance genes that could be the most problematic.
The external crossing of species. The term gene transfer from genetically modified plants to traditional crops or wild plants, as well as the mixing of conventional seed cultures with those obtained using genetically modified plants, is called this.
Risks to the environment
- The potential for these genetically modified microorganisms to diffuse and potentially introduce genes modified by biotechnology into wild populations.
- Persistence of the gene in nature once these plants are harvested.
- Susceptibility of animals or plants against which the genetic modification of the modified organism is not directed.
- Stability of the modified gene.
- Reduction of biodiversity.
- Increased use of chemicals in agriculture.
Controversies in the use of these foods
The tenacious opposition of environmental organizations has meant that the European Union has not granted in the last years any authorization to market genetically modified organisms. With regard to health, they point out that the main risks are a lower response to antibiotics if they eat modified foods with genes resistant to these drugs and the proliferation of allergies, in addition to potential risks of cancer.
Proponents of these foods argue that they are safe, that scientific studies have sufficiently proved their health safety, although controls have been based primarily on the non-toxicity and digestibility of these foods and the environment, and that Ecologists is nothing more than alarmism and atavistic and irrational fear of progress. One expert has pointed out that “the safety criteria required for transgenic plants would be impossible to meet by many other food products of habitual consumption and products as present in our social life as alcoholic beverages, tobacco, aircraft Or the automobile. ” None of the traditional foods has passed such stringent tests as those applied to transgenic foods.
Finally, we will point out that in order to avoid problems of allergy to these foods, which may become serious, the authorities have been urged to oblige producers to record on the labels of manufactured foods each and every one of its components. The companies producing these foods are reluctant, if not obliged, to record all this data, because of the bad press that have genetically modified foods. And, when they do, it is not uncommon for them to use uncompromising phrases like “genetically modified” or “this product has been genetically modified to improve its texture.”
Fortunately, a new European legislation introducing the new framework for the precise labeling of genetically modified food and feed comes into force these days. The new regulations require reporting on all products coming from genetically modified organisms, even if the final product does not contain DNA or modified proteins. They also extend this obligation to food additives obtained from genetically engineered microorganisms. In this way, the new regulations will guarantee the consumer’s right to choose, while providing confidence about what is bought and eat.