Expert response from Cathleen Enright
Former Executive Director of the Council for Biotechnology Information
Tuesday, 24/09/2013 13:00
I believe Monsanto has already corrected myths about its desire to “control the world’s food” supply, so I’ll focus on the issues of banning and labeling.
I’m aware of only one country, Kenya, with a ban in place on all GM food imports. The decision came about in November 2012, apparently during a cabinet meeting, and circumvented the existing Kenyan Biosafety Act and the National Biosafety Authority, the regulatory agency established to regulate the use of GMOs. There are a few bans in place for the import of specific GM foods, but these restrictions are based on non-scientific factors—for example, cultural sensitivity or political expediency (see below). Of the 59 countries around the world that have functional regulatory systems, none of these has a ban on GM food imports.
I think the false assertion that GMOs are broadly banned comes about when countries with regulatory systems for GMOs have not yet made a final determination or approval. For example, some may incorrectly believe that the EU has a ban on GMOs for food and animal feed because of polarized public opinion and extended delays in the EU approval process, particularly the final step—a political decision-making process in which the member states vote on the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) scientific opinion. By mid-2011, 39 GM products were approved for food and feed use in the EU, but 72 approvals were stuck at the political decision-making step. All had received favorable opinions from EFSA. Despite the GMO controversy in the EU, it imports 72 percent (2011) of the protein-rich feed needed to support its livestock industry from Brazil, Argentina and the United States, the vast majority of which is GMO.
The EU approval process for the cultivation of GMOs suffers from even greater delays, again due to the political paralysis that plagues the approval process. Just two GMO products are approved for planting, but eight EU member states (France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Luxemburg, Austria, Hungary and Greece) have indeed banned one of those products, an insect-resistant corn variety, citing environmental concerns that EFSA has reiterated are not justified. These bans are good examples of political expediency interfering with risk-based decision-making. Meanwhile, Spain and Portugal continue to grow this corn variety on a commercial scale.
The scientific processes and requirements for assessing the safety of GMOs are largely similar around the world, and the regulatory authorities in the EU, Japan, China, Brazil, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and many, many other countries have each determined that GMOs are substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts. The same cannot be said for mandatory labeling laws, however. None is based on safety or health concerns. In fact, the wide diversity in the requirements globally demonstrates that the safety, health or nutrition associated with GM food had no bearing in the decision to implement mandatory labeling requirements. For example around the world, thresholds for requiring a product to be labeled GMO range from 0.9 to 5 percent of the product’s GM content. GM oils; sugars; and GM processing aids, such as starches, yeasts and bacteria used to make food, are often exempted, as is GM animal feed. Many of the labeling requirements also are enforced on a discretionary basis or not at all.
This type of labeling makes no sense to us. The United States has a history of reserving the use of mandatory labels to convey information to consumers about the safety and nutrition of a product. A mandatory GMO label tells the consumer nothing about a product’s safety or nutrition value. We want consumers to know about GMOs, but not in a way that could convey to consumers that the food made from the crops farmers grew with our seeds is somehow less safe, healthy or nutritious than food produced with non-GM ingredients. Voluntary labeling is available in the United States and we support it. For example, retailers can label organic and kosher food products to assist consumers in making choices.
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