WHO study

WHO study: Modern food biotechnology, human health and development: an evidence-based study, 2005 [click on the link to access the actual report]

Extract from the executive summary

This study makes the case for the need for an evidence base to facilitate a more coherent evaluation of the application of modern food biotechnology and the use of GM foods. Such an evidence base should:

  • deal with the assessment of human health and environmental risk as well as benefit;
  • evaluate socioeconomic factors, including intellectual property rights; and
  • consider ethical aspects.

The study reviews evidence in five broad areas:

  • Current use, research and impending development of foods produced through modern biotechnology, and their significance for human health and development.
  • Risk assessments of present and future products of modern biotechnology in relation to food safety, human nutrition and environmental health.
  • The significance of modern food biotechnology for food security, and the impact of intellectual property rights on research.
  • National capacity for risk assessment and management.
  • The impact of modern food biotechnology on civil society, considering social and ethical concerns.

The first GM food (delayed-ripening tomato) was introduced on the US market in the mid-1990s. Since then, GM strains of maize, soybean, rape and cotton have been adopted by a number of countries and marketed internationally. In addition, GM varieties of papaya, potato, rice, squash and sugar beet have been trialed or released. It is estimated that GM crops cover almost 4% of total global arable land.

The development of GM organisms (GMOs) offers the potential for increased agricultural productivity or improved nutritional value that can contribute directly to enhancing human health and development. From a health perspective, there may also be indirect benefits, such as reduced agricultural chemical usage and enhanced farm income, and improved crop sustainability and food security, particularly in developing countries. Contradictory findings for such benefits sometimes reflect different regional or agricultural conditions.

The use of GMOs may also involve potential risks for human health and development. Many genes used in GMOs have not been in the food supply before. While new types of conventional food crops are not usually subject to safety assessment before marketing, assessments of GM foods were undertaken before the first crops were commercialized.

Many countries have established specific premarket regulatory systems in accordance with an international guidance that require a case-by-case risk assessment of each GM food. Risk assessment methodology undergoes continuous improvements. GM foods currently traded on the international market have passed risk assessments in several countries and are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health.

Although risk-assessment systems have been in use for some time, the perception of GM food among consumers has not always recognized these assessments. One explanation is that many national food-safety systems have had problems performing good risk communication in this area. In many countries, social and ethical considerations may cause also resistance to modifications which interfere with genes.

Investigations of public perception indicate that the sceptical consumer will acknowledge arguments both for and against GM food and, in general, does not demand ‘zero risk’. Likewise, it has been seen that critical attitudes towards GM food are not necessarily linked to a negative attitude towards the use of biotechnology as such, as demonstrated by a generally positive attitude towards the use of biotechnology in modern medicine. The issue of benefit to society therefore seems to constitute an important aspect related to acceptance of new technology.

Conflicting assessments and incomplete substantiation of the benefits, risks and limitations of GM food have added to existing controversies. During a famine situation in southern Africa in 2002, the reluctance among several recipient countries to receive GM food aid was not primarily linked to health or environment issues, but to socioeconomic, ownership and ethical issues.



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