Detection of genetically modified (GM) material in internationally traded non-GM food and feed has spiked in the past few years, interrupting trade and adding to food losses, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The FAO said 75 out of 193 member countries responded to questions about low level GM crops found in non-GM food and feed imports in the first survey of its kind, carried out from February to June last year. They reported 198 cases of GM crops in non-GM deliveries from 2002 to 2012, with 70% of those (138) detected since 2009.
Linseed, maize, rice and papaya were the most common crops found to contain unauthorised GM material.
Food safety officer at the FAO, Sarah Cahill, said: “The biggest concern is the disruption to trade between countries and of course the associated economic impact. When low levels of GM crops are detected in a shipment of non-GM crops, the shipment is generally rejected by the importing country. The confinements are either returned to the country of origin, which in itself has cost implications, or in some cases they are destroyed. Now, the latter not only has economic implications but also contributes to food losses.”
Under current EU regulations, the threshold limit for unintentional presence of GM materials in crops is 0.9%. Above this level, items containing approved GM products require labelling.
However, most of the 75 countries involved in the study did not have policies in place for low levels of GM material.
Cahill added that with increased production of GM crops – and improved sensitivity and frequency of testing – it was probably not unusual that detection was increasing in traded food.
“Any of these GM products that are in the market have been subject to rigorous safety assessments, so from a safety perspective they are not marketed without undergoing that level of assurance,” Cahill said. “We are aware that many consumers like to make a choice between GM foods and non-GM foods and, if it’s not clear whether a non-GM food has low levels of GM foods, this may have implications for the choice that they make. They may not have all the information they need to make that choice.”
FAO senior food safety officer in charge of the survey Renata Clarke said the FAO also asked countries to help the organisation assess the safety of GM crops for human consumption.
"We would like to see countries sharing any scientific findings they have on the subject," she said.
With this in mind, the FAO has set up a GM foods platform for countries to share information on safety assessments, which is available here .
The survey is one way in which the FAO aims to tackle the issue of low level unauthorised GM crops in shipments, with the resulting information to be used as the basis for a technical meeting in Rome next week. More information, including how to attend, is available here .