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FOOD TODAY 04/2003

Genetically Modified Foods - the Debate Moves Ahead

Food TodayThe debate over genetically modified (GM) foods has been going on for some years now, with much of the discussion centered on whether or not these foods are safe to eat. Thanks to scientific research, improved understanding of the technology and new regulations, most parties involved in the GM debate now agree that the food and food ingredients derived from currently available genetically modified crops are not likely to present a risk for human health.

Safety assessment

A crucial point to remember when considering the safety of GM foods, is that it is the food as it is consumed that must be examined, not the production process in isolation. This means that the properties and overall safety of the food needs to be assessed, just as we do with foods produced using conventional methods. European Union legislation requires that GM products are submitted to a rigorous safety evaluation before authorisation is given for human consumption.

The European Union, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations agreed on a methodology referred to as "substantial equivalence" as the most practical approach to assess the safety of GM foods and food ingredients.

"Substantial equivalence" focuses on the product rather than the production process. It is a rigorous procedure including a detailed list of parameters and characteristics that need to be considered including molecular characterisation of the genetic modification, agronomic characterisation, nutritional and toxicological assessments.

The 'substantial equivalence' approach acknowledges that the goal of the assessment cannot be to establish absolute safety. The important conclusion is that if, after the evaluation, the safety of the new product is comparable (substantially equivalent) to a conventional counterpart then the level of "risk" is comparable to foods that we have consumed safely for thousand of years. However, if the GM product has new traits or characteristics that make it no longer substantially equivalent (such as a higher level of a vitamin), then an additional assessment is required. This assessment focuses on the effects the new trait may have on the safety of the new food and may include various types of tests to demonstrate the safety.

Looking ahead

The debate on GM food is far from over. Various environmental issues and the safety assessment of future generations of GM products with unique characteristics are among the issues that will continue to elicit discussion, research and testing.

It is however evident that much progress has been made with regard to developing a consensus on the food safety. As the number of GM products available in the market slowly grows, consumers can be assured that they have been subjected to a rigorous evaluation and that food authorities worldwide agree on their safety for human health.

Available evidence shows that GM foods are "not likely to present human health risks" and therefore "these foods may be eaten."
Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General, 28 Aug 2002.Current scientific research confirms the safety of GM food.
Dr Jacques Diouf, FAO Director General, 30 August 2002.


  • FAO/WHO (1991) Strategies for assessing the safety of foods produced by biotechnology. Report of a joint FAO/WHO Consultation. WHO. Switzerland.
  • OECD (1993) Safety evaluation of foods produced by modern biotechnology: concepts and principles. OECD, Paris, France.
  • Genetic Modification and Food. Consumer Health and Safety. ILSI Europe Concise Monograph Series, 2001
  • WHO, Food Safety Programme, 20 Questions on genetically modified (GM) foods, 2002
Terms used in this article
Genetic Modification
The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is a non-profit organisation which communicates science-based information on nutrition and health, food safety and quality, to help consumers to be better informed when choosing a well-balanced, safe and healthful diet.

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