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The Guidelines on Voluntary Labelling of GM (Genetically Modified) Food for Hong Kong has been in place since 2006. In a conversation with, Alison Van Eenennaam, an expert in genomics and biotechnology and Cooperative Extension Specialist in the Department of Animal Science at University of California-Davis, discusses the safety of genetically modified food for human consumption and challenges associated with mandatory labelling

By Leon Lee

Genetically engineered (GE) foods have been in the market since the early 1990s. And since the beginning, there has always been debates on its use and safety for both human and animal consumption. About 90 percent of genetically engineered crops globally, such as corn and soybeans, are consumed by livestock.

A major issue raised by concern groups is that consumers are not informed of exactly what’s in the food or what’s been genetically modified. They advocate for mandatory labelling of GE foods to differentiate ones that have been modified or those that contain GM (genetically modified) components. According to the World Health Organization, the three main health concerns with GM foods are the potential problems with allergic reactions, gene transfer and outcrossing.

Currently, regulations on GM food vary around the world. In the US, GM products are assessed by an agency with the Department of Agriculture, but the Food and Drug Administration does not require those products to be approved before marketing for sale. So far, there has been no cases reported of harmful effects from the consumption of approved GM food globally.

In Hong Kong, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department conducted a regulatory impact study on the possibility of introducing a labelling scheme for GM food in 2002. According to their report, there would be no increases in costs to the food trade under a voluntary labelling scheme. However, if it were mandatory, there would be cost increases, especially for small and medium enterprises. The Guidelines on Voluntary Labelling of GM Food for Hong Kong has been in place since 2006.

To learn more, sat down with Alison Van Eenennaam, Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California-Davis and a leading expert in the field, who was in Hong Kong late last year for a seminar on the topic. Let’s start off with GM foods. What is the process like?

Van Eenennaam: You’re basically bringing in a piece of DNA from, perhaps, another species to give your plant a particular characteristic. Like the papaya, for example. It’s resistant to ringspot disease. That’s the only thing that that piece of DNA does. It doesn’t produce a protein, and it doesn’t do anything to it, except making it disease-resistant.

We often breed disease resistance using other breeding methods like radiation mutagenesis where you can nuke the genome, then select the ones that are resistant to a disease, and bring it into the population. I’m a breeder and geneticist, and we do this all the time. There’s nothing unique about this breeding method that has unique risks associated with it. Do you believe that labelling of GM foods is necessary?

Van Eenennaam: In the US, labelling is reserved for a material difference in the products. So, if maybe there are peanuts in the product, you need to know there are peanuts because you might have an allergy. In this particular case, we’re talking about a breeding method. There are lots of different breeding methods that are used, and we don’t typically mandate that you have breeding methods on the label of a product. Typically that’s for safety concerns.

There’s no safety issue here so if you’re going to have mandatory labelling for this breeding method, I want to know why because if I get a papaya that says GM, what does that mean. It doesn’t really tell me anything. It doesn’t tell me what it’s genetically modified for. In the US where there’s a lot of genetically modified crops that are grown, basically all of our processed food probably contain sugar or oil from a GM plant.

There’s no mandatory labelling of GM food [in the US]. There is a couple of voluntary programs for people that want to differentiate themselves as being non-GM. So there is a non-GMO (genetically modified organism) project and also [one for] organic food, both of which don’t allow the use of that particular breeding method in their products. That provides a choice for consumers in the marketplace who are actually worried about this. Would you elaborate on that?

Van Eenennaam: We do that with a lot of different production methods in the United States – kosher, halal, grass-fed, cage-free chicken. But it doesn’t mean that everybody that’s not halal has to label their stuff as being non-halal. Typically, the way it works is that people who want it have a differentiated market that they pay more for. They bear the cost of keeping all of their products separate. We don’t ever have a system where the rest of the food supply has to go through the expensive labelling for something that’s not associated with safety.

We absolutely have to label for composition and nutrients for allergens and products “made in a factory that might contain gluten,” but we never have to label for “brought to the supermarket on a red truck” because it’s not germane to the product itself. It doesn’t change the composition or the safety or anything to do with the product. Besides an increase in cost, what are the impacts of mandatory labelling of GM food?

Van Eenennaam: When you talk about mandatory labelling, it’s a law. If you didn’t label it or if you labeled it incorrectly when, for instance, the sugar you used in fact came from a plant [producing] genetically engineered foods, then you would be liable for legal responsibilities or getting a lawsuit.

Sugar, for example, comes from sugar beets or sugar canes. Sugar beets are genetically engineered, sugar canes are not. Sugar is about half genetically engineered and half not. But the product itself is sucrose. It doesn’t have any DNA or protein, and there’s no way to tell whether it came from a genetically engineered sugar beets or non-genetically engineered sugar canes.

If I were to correctly label a product that contains sugar, I would have to have segregation in the entire supply chain of all the sugar that comes from sugar beets in order to make sure it gets labelled correctly. Now let’s do the same for oil. Similarly, oil doesn’t contain DNA or protein so there is no idea if it came from a genetically engineered plant or not. To do that, you would have to do an entire supply chain segregation of oil.

You can imagine all the ingredients in a cookie. There’re probably 30 ingredients and lot of vitamins and minerals. There’s just a lot to it to accurately label a cookie. Now let’s try that with the hundreds of thousands of processed foods. It does sound like an enormous task, but what about the safety of eating GM foods?

Van Eenennaam: [People] think there is something in the food like some type of a nasty chemical or something toxic. All it is, is a breeding method that was used in the process to create this particular plant, and the plant itself is not dangerous because we eat DNA all the time. The basic digestion is that you digest proteins and DNA and then metabolize it. So what is it that’s dangerous? There’s nothing in the food other than the idea that it’s just food.

There’s nothing there, but there’re all these benefits that we never talk about. The papaya is disease-resistant, and if it weren’t for that gene being introduced, there would be no papaya industry in Hawaii.

Often people get bogged down in how you genetically engineer something without talking about why. Why we do it is because there are ways we can address these problems in agriculture that we can’t address in any other way except through using this technology. Disease resistance is particularly compelling because we seriously won’t have these crops unless we’re allowed to use some of these technologies to develop resistant varieties.

As an agricultural scientist, I see this as a really valuable breeding method that I would like to use to create disease-resistant animals and plants that are incredible sustainability options. We can’t use this technology now but I’m certainly comfortable with the safety of it and am feeding it to my kids. And I already do.

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Dr Alison Van Eenennaam is a genomics and biotechnology researcher and is Cooperative Extension Specialist in the Department of Animal Science at University of California-Davis. Her outreach program focuses on the development of science-based educational materials including biotechnologies of genetic engineering (GE) and cloning.

She has served on several national committees including the USDA National Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture and as a temporary voting member of the 2010 FDA Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee meeting on the AquAdvantage salmon (the first GE animal to be evaluated for entry into the food supply).

Van Eenennaam is the recipient of the 2010 National Award for Excellence in Extension from the American Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities as well as the 2014 Borlaug Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) Communication Award.