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Food scientists need not shy away from GM, says IFST

By Jess Halliday , 10-Sep-2008
Last updated the 14-Jun-2010 at 11:29 GMT

Safety, environmental and ethical concerns surrounding genetically modified foods are being addressed, says the Institute for Food Science and Technology; and although more work still needs to be done, GM techniques will bring significant benefits in the future.

There has been considerable debate this year about whether GM technology could help secure food supplies for the world’s population, as prices of basic commodities have risen through the roof and the world’s poor have faced the threat of starvation.

Some politicians and industry insiders have spoken out on its potential to help provide food for all. Environmental groups and some public figures, on the other hand, have dug their heels into the opinion that there is not enough evidence on its long-term effect on human health and the environment.

In a new position statement on the subject, the IFST, the UK-based independent professional body for food scientists and technologist, says:

“Food scientists and technologists can support the responsible introduction of GM techniques provided that issues of product safety, environmental concerns, information and ethics are satisfactorily addressed.

“IFST considers that they are being addressed, and need even more intensively to continue to be so addressed.”

The position is significant since IFST is independent of government, industry, and lobbying and special interest groups. Its members are elected by virtue of academic qualifications and experience, and their personal capacities – not as representatives of the organisations for which they work.

It is, however, consulted by governments and other organisations on matters relating to food science and technology.

Assessing the scientific evidence on the effects of GM is a major task for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), risk assessor to the European Commission. Its team of researchers focusing on this area is currently being dramatically expanded.

The Commission is under no legal obligation to act in accordance with EFSA’s opinions, however. The IFST does not give an indication of how the progress towards addressing the concerns should be measured.

GM benefits

The IFST says that only by addressing the concerns “may the benefits that this technology can confer become available”.

It says that GM crops have already been grown by some 12 million farmers around the world, most of whom are resource-poor, and have “provided significant improvements in the quality and quantity of the food supply”.

At the same time, it says they have reduced economic cost, energy, pesticide and fuel usage, soil erosion and carbon emissions – with no scientifically-documented evidence of harm to human health.

It also notes potential for second generation GM crops in bringing a range of other benefits, such as nutrition, more effective use of fertilisers, drought resistant crops, and crops that can grow successfully in unaccommodating land.