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National Academy of Sciences Urges Greater Scrutiny of Genetically Modified Foods - 2004-07-28

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences is urging greater scrutiny of genetically modified foods for potential adverse health effects.

Genetically modified food is a subject that has divided the scientific community as well as policymakers and the general public the world over. Earlier this week, French protesters destroyed a crop of experimental maize. Several African governments have restricted humanitarian aid shipments if they include donations of genetically altered food. On the other hand, India has unveiled a six-year plan to engineer high nutrition crops to feed its rapidly expanding population. Last year, Brazil approved limited planting of genetically modified soybeans.

The National Academy of Sciences says, so far, it knows of no threats to human health from genetically altered food. But Sue Masters, who is the chairperson of an Academy committee set up to look into the issue, says danger exists.

"Any technology used to modify genes, whether genetic engineering or other methods, carries the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health," she said.

The 13-member committee, which studied the issue for 18 months, concluded that federal agencies should assess the composition and safety of genetically altered foods on a case-by-case basis. The committee said that greater scrutiny should be given to foods containing new compounds or unusual amounts of naturally occurring substances, regardless of the method used to create them.

Committee member Dean DellaPenna of Michigan State University had this to say

"What we are recommending is that all types of genetic modification - food produced from all types of genetic modification, be assessed at some level," he added. "This may include analysis of micro-nutrients, macro-nutrients, amino acids, other essential or non-essential compounds, known toxicants such as alkaloids."

The committee said sampling methods and testing procedures should be standardized; that safety assessments be conducted, where warranted, before new foods are sold to the public, and that a database of compounds found in genetically altered foods be compiled and made available to the public.

Committee member Sanford Miller of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute says he hopes the report will prompt development of new methods for examining the food supply.

"There are a number of recommendations in this report for which the technology has not reached a point where it could be applied," he noted. "This is a technology-forcing report. And what it says is that there are techniques available that might be able to be used for this purpose, and these techniques need to be developed. They need to be pushed."

Perhaps of greatest interest to the public is the basic question: are genetically altered foods safe to eat? Dean DellaPenna says that question is impossible to answer with 100 percent certainty. But he notes that virtually everything grown or raised by humans has, at some point, been modified in some way.

"As far as 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers were selecting certain crops that were better than the ones next to them, and they would grow them the next year and continue this selection," he explained.

What is different today is that science allows us to alter the makeup of the food we eat in a much more targeted, rapid and far-reaching manner than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The National Academy of Sciences committee says, with that ability comes a need for greater care and vigilance.