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Concern about genetically modified foods continues to rage in the UK. For example, the Consumers' Association has pledged its support for international activity on GM foods joining the 250 consumer associations around the world which make up the global federation of consumer groups co-ordinated by Consumers International. This organisation represents the views of consumers in 111 countries. Groups from countries such as Thailand, Malawi and Brazil are forming a united front protesting to governments and GM developers about GM safety, implications for the environment and the need for honest labelling to give consumers real choice about whether they eat GM foods or not. This requires the creation of global labelling rules and if possible an internationally recognised symbol for GM foods. It is claimed that there are millions of people across the world who are worried about the socio-economic implications of GM foods, particularly in developing countries.
A task force has been set up by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the United Nations international food standards setting body. It aims to develop guidelines, standards and recommendations on GM foods. The task force will need to focus on several key issues. These include what constitutes sufficient scientific evidence about the safety of GM foods, a review of risk analysis and full consideration of factors such as animal welfare, cultural and religious considerations that should be taken into account when producing and marketing GM foods.
As a result of consumer concern about GM foods, many food retailers and manufacturers have removed GM ingredients from their products. For example, the supermarket chain Iceland recently announced its intention that all its livestock for meat and poultry production will be reared on a non-GM diet. The company has achieved this non-GM status by purchasing 6,000 tonnes of non-GM soya meal to help its suppliers become non-GM. The Iceland technical team travelled the world to find non-GM soya crops when US farmers refused to separate the seeds at source. The Advisory Committee on Animal Feed has called for animal feed not to declare the presence of GM ingredients. Only if the product can be assured GM free should there be any GM labelling they say.
Consumers want more stringent controls in place to ensure that GM foods are safe to eat. They are concerned that we do not know enough about the technology and its unintended consequences. For some, it is seen as unethical and unnatural. They also want their free choice whether to buy GM foods or not. There is also concern about whether GM foods will introduce allergens or toxins inadvertently. Some GM crops use antibiotic-resistant marker genes which have raised concerns about their impact on bacterial antibiotic resistance. Organic farmers are also concerned about GM crop trials. If cross contamination took place between their crops and the GM ones, they could lose their organic status.
Consumers may be unaware of the precise ways in which foods are genetically modified. It has been suggested that as genes are found in almost every cell of all plants and animals that make up our food, why should there be any difference for any gene in a food which has been genetically modified? As with non-modified genes, they will be broken down as the food is digested. Products such as sugars or oils contain no genes as they are extracted from plants. There are also some nutritional advances that would be beneficial with GM foods. An example is the rice crop that was grown with more iron and vitamin A to counteract the anaemia and xerophthalmia that results when developing countries live primarily on rice.
But I believe that genetic modification touches people more deeply than this: they are psychologically concerned about tampering with nature and foods that are the result of extensive scientific manipulation. No wonder that anti-GM food campaigners have come up with the term Frankenstein foods - they know how to hit people the hardest way.