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Thu, 21 August 2014 15:19:39
The great GM debate continues........
20 Feb, 2005 00:00:00
Farmers have increased area planted with GM crops by over 50 times in last decade.
Farmers have increased area planted with GM crops by over 50 times in last decade.
But there are no studies on the long-term effects of eating GM food or the effects those crops can have on the environment.

Many imported cereals, cheese, chocolates and locally made products with imported ingredients get grouped as Genitally modified foods.

Some bureaucrats in the Health Ministry want to limit the amount of GM food coming in to the country to protect consumers.

In Mary Shelly's Frankenstein an experiment to create new life goes horribly wrong.

Attempts to correct the mistake later, fail. Frankenstein the creator scientist is ultimately killed by his own creation.

Green movement says a similar mistake with unknown consequences is being made, by allowing the use of genetically modified food.

Most foodstuffs available in supermarkets from milk powder to chocolates they say have genetic modifications or "Frankenfoods".

But marketers and food labels here, don't tell consumers what they are eating.

An ideal food label in UK gives all the product details a consumer needs.

For instance this model label for yogurt, gives a nutrition brake down, ingredients, allergy advice, suitability for vegetarians and refrigeration advice.

A special caption says this yogurt has biocultures or genetically modified material.

Consumers can make an informed choice.

But not here.

Local labels only give shoppers basic information like price, expiry date and the ingredients list.

Consumers who buy products made with genetically modified material here are less demanding.

Producers and importers of foodstuff here only reveal the use-by date and basic ingredients, a legal requirement, but not information about GM contents.

According to a list published by Green Peace, an international environment group, many products available in supermarkets like cereals, cheese and cola drinks have GM material.

Genetic modification or GM is done by taking a gene from one organism and transferring a copy of that to a new organism.

The new gene will create a new characteristic that didn't exist in the earlier organism.

For example scientists took anti-freeze genes from cold-water fish like trout, to insert into strawberry plants to make strawberries tolerate cold temperatures.

Scientists say there are a few methods of transferring genes.

The most popular way is by injecting DNA into other cells using a sharp needle.

Injecting genes in to potential host plants and animals on which other organisms live is called Biolistics and is also used for gene transfer.

Scientists also use viruses or bacteria to carry genes in to new cells and a fourth technique called protoplasts is used to inject DNA in to plant cell walls.

Led by the US, 17 countries have planted over 80 million hectares of GM crops across the world according to the ISAAA an agency that helps transfer biotechnology knowledge to poor countries.

Developing China and India has 5 percent of land worldwide under GM crops.

ISAAA says acreage of GM crops in the developing world grew faster at 35 percent last year than in developed countries, which grew at 13 percent.

Ten years ago there were no commercial GM crops anywhere in the world and even today there are no GM crops grown in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka pushed by the environmental lobby the government is considering regulating GM food imports.

The environment ministry says they will only allow a GM content of 0.1 percent in imported food ones a new law to regulate imports is introduced.

Importers will have to prove to an expert panel that their products meet these standards.

"We are trying to set up the regulation to control the entry of such products into the country. Before importing you will have to apply for a permit and experts will have to be 200 percent sure that none of these risks are present in the product you are importing," says Athula Perera, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

In 2001, the Health Ministry unsuccessfully tried to ban GM food imports.

Government backed out of the decision under pressure from the country's trading partners.

This time the regulations will not be imposed as a ban.

Some importers said testing for GM and certification would make products more expensive.

For instance, GM material can get in to milk powder if the grass the cows eat is genetically modified.

The testing to find out if the GM content is less than 0.1 percent can also be very complicated.

Top importers including Nestle, Unilever, Millers, Stassens & Scan turned down repeated requests by LBR for interviews on GM food imports.

Environmental lobbyists say long-term effects of GM food consumption are not known.

"The basic risk is that no one knows what is in it. And no one has proven that any of the GM foods that are available in the market absolutely safe for consumption," points out Jagath Gunawardene, Environmental Conservationist.

In the USA GM food have to go through a process called substantial Equivalence Convention where they declare that the tested GM food is substantially similar to the conventional food, he explains.

"We cannot say that there are dangers but health concerns of GM foods and the new proteins or DNA etc are there," says Athula Perera.

But analysts' say that DNA chemicals used for gene transfer is not absorbed into blood stream but gets destroyed in the stomach.

"They get destroyed in the stomach. For example we eat a lot of plant food but we do not get the characteristics of the plants," explains Maya Gunasekera, CEO, Genetech.

"You need to do a long term study, say for about 10 years and long term study on consumption to see if there are any effects," she says.

But experts say food grown by farmers in the conventional way is proven scarier than so-called frankenfood.

Heavier than necessary chemical use to fight pest and weed attacks known as over dozing can be bad for human health.

Using GM plants capable of resisting pest attacks can make food cheaper and also healthier.

"When the insects eat the leaves of the plant they die because the plant itself produces the protein that kills the pest. So you do not have to spray any pesticides," Ms. Gunasekera says.

Biotech crops last year were worth US$ 4.7 billion with values forecasted to rise annually. Biotech crops account for 15 percent of the global crop protection or biochemical markets and 6 percent of the global seed market.

The environmental lobby says the country should however carefully look at how the agriculture sector can benefit from biotechnology of which genetic modification is only a small part.

"There is always a potential to have GM foods that may be able to help us in the future. India is developing a drought resistant crops but the problem is who is going to fund it. Unless the governments do it private companies can do it," says Gunawardene.

With no proof to ban GM food most countries are letting consumers decide by making detailed labeling mandatory.

Local consumers are also saying say would like to have similar information.

"If it is stated then the consumers can decide for themselves," says Gwen Adams while Viraj Mendis another consumer says it should be indicated on the label.

-LBR Newsdesk: LBOEmail@vanguardlanka.com

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