World's Rich Countries
Approve GM Foods As 'Safe'
PARIS (AFP) - The world's advanced industrialised democracies have given cautious approval to the first generation of genetically-modified (GM) foods, saying there is no evidence to conclude they pose any danger to health.
However, the report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also warns that safety assessment methods and procedures must be overhauled as the next wave of biotech products heads for the dinner plate.
And it highlights glaring national differences -- and friction among scientists -- as to how to certify whether these novel foods are safe for the environment.
"Much experience has been gained in the safety assessment of the first generation of foods derived through modern biotechnology," says the document.
"Those countries that have conducted assessments are confident that those GM foods that they have approved are as safe as other foods. Nevertheless, some have raised concerns about the adequacy of existing test methods."
The study, posted on the OECD website, may play a key role in the future of engineered foods, which are battling widespread hostility in many countries, particularly in western Europe.
The document, drawn up by national specialists named by the OECD's 29 members, was requested by the Group of Eight (G8) countries in time for their next summit, due to take place in Okinawa, Japan from July 21-23.
About 40 first-generation foods have been approved for release in some OECD countries, headed by the United States and Canada.
These are derived from plants, such as corn, potatoes and tomatoes, that have had a single gene inserted from another species, conferring them such advantages as resistance to pests or insecticides, bruise-free transport or a longer shelf life.
The next generation of plants, however, are likely to have several genes added to them, to boost nutritional value, provide a vaccine against local diseases or offer marketing benefits.
They will be followed by more complex inventions -- farm animals or fish that have been engineered, for instance, to be highly efficient in converting feed into flesh.
As these new, more complex organisms emerge from the laboratory, the greatest challenge is to ensure that methods to test them be updated and not become imbedded in principles based on outdated knowledge, the report says.
The biggest caveat is sounded over a benchmark principle called substantial equivalence.
This principle is the main scientific hurdle for gaining approval in the United States. If a new product is chemically similar to a conventional one, it is considered "substantially equivalent" to it and is thus no less safe for human health than its predecessor.
"Food safety assessors should keep the concept of substantial equivalence under review and should continue to exchange experience with the development of new testing methods and strategies as well as harmonising data needs," says the report.
As for the environment, the report discreetly criticises the confusing and sometimes contradictory mishmash of national regulations that govern the release of new transgenic plants in different countries.
And it says that scientists themselves are deeply at odds over how to interpret the so-called "precautionary approach" -- the principle that determines whether an engineered organism is safe to be farmed.
Environmentalists say biotechnology is a new and largely untested application.
They fear that transgenic products could wreak havoc in the wild by eliminating species or transferring genes that could create "superweeds" or other perils.

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