Statement from Prof. Shirani Ranasinghe, Senior Prof. in Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine – University of Peradeniya.
The growth of the human population has created significant challenges for agricultural production. Nearly 870 million people suffer from malnutrition, most of them in the developing countries of Africa, Asia, and South America.
Protein rich food, a major contributor to human nutrition and health, plays a crucial role in the rural economies of most developing countries, particularly in dry regions. In order to produce enough protein for the growing global population, farming systems are increasing the pressure on land, water resource use and biodiversity conservation, since it compromises nearly 80% of the world agricultural land and provides the grazing feed-base for the dairy and red meat industries.
Additionally, climate change and environmental degradation keeps reducing the available agricultural land, creating additional challenges to fill the increasing food demand. Solutions to face climate change and high demand for natural resources are urgently needed, especially in the area of forage production
Among the agricultural biotechnologies, genetic modification, is a possible solution that enables an increase of production. This has been proposed as a way to reduce the environmental footprint, by improving food quality and increasing productivity. Further, scientists are able to use artificial genetic manipulations to successfully transfer genes for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance into traditional crops or other advances.
Crop cultivars developed through use of transgenesis, therefore, have been regarded as GM organisms. Research has concluded that GM technology has decreased the use of chemical pesticides by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. The major GM crop available in the market today is soybean while maize and cotton take second and third places.
Many genetically modified (GM) plant cultivars have been registered worldwide. The most cultivated of genetically modified (GM) is the Roundup Ready soybean, which represents the staple constituents of many foods. Foods made from soybeans are among the most traditional and familiar foods in some countries around the world. However, introduction of new crop varieties with altered genetic materials is handled carefully by nations such as Sri Lanka. Each product is subjected to safety assessments to fulfil the regulatory requirements and evaluate its impact on human, animal, and the environmental health.
The scientific evidence that must be provided in the safety assessment of GM crops can vary among different legal jurisdictions. However, a detailed molecular characterization of the transgene insertion, development of tracking and tracing methodologies to ensure legality and traceability, and environmental studies to enable coexistence frameworks, are common studies in the safety assessment of GM crops. Other studies, such as toxicological, allergenicity and nutritional are performed using the latest scientific knowledge and technologies.
Environmental Safety Studies
Environmental risk assessments aim to determine whether a new GM crop variety has direct effects on the natural environment. A range of factors, such as effects on biodiversity, modification of soil and water quality, and disease and weed control, is considered in this process.
In case of natural plant populations, such movement can happen through seeds, vegetative propagules or pollen and its importance varies among plant species. However, morphological and molecular markers are also required to assist with rapid identification or to identify/confirm hybrids. Until now the safety assessments of GM plants have centered around human exposure and animal safety.
The purpose of toxicological studies is to characterize intended changes and detect active substances or compounds that could have unexpected toxic effects for non-targeted organisms. All toxicity assessment for GM material is performed based on a case-by-case approach, considering the toxicological profile of new introduced substances. These methods assess the toxicity of a specific compound in the body, usually compromise the use of animal studies, considering the target species and the critical effects. However, new strategies to identify GM feed anti-nutrient or toxicants are being introduced.
Legislation in Sri Lanka with respect to GM food
Sri Lanka introduced labelling norms in January 2007 to regulate genetically modified food. Under the new rules, Food (Control of Import, Labelling and Sale of Genetically Modified Foods) Regulations 2006, issued by the health ministry, all GM food or food that includes GM organisms must be labelled. If sellers or importers fail to specify so, they could be fined up to 10,000 Sri Lankan rupees. The choice of consumption is left to the consumer.
The director, food control unit, health ministry, says that food products declared by the importer as GM-free’ must be certified by the Chief Food Authority (CFA), who is also the country’s director-general of health. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to ban the import, manufacture and sale of GM food in 2001. Under the ban, the government had issued a list of crops that could potentially contain GM food and importers were required to obtain approval for these. That list includes soya, wheat, tomatoes and potatoes but current labelling rules have no such list. To enforce these rules, some government laboratories are equipped with GM testing facilities.
Rights of the Sri Lankan consumer
Any product that contains 0.1 per cent or more of GM food or organism must have a label to indicate this. After certification, the product should carry a GM-free indication on the packaging. Therefore, if the TVP manufacturers give an assurance that they follow these regulations, every consumer in Sri Lanka has a right to find out the safety of the product.
[The writer is Prof Shirani Ranasinghe, Senior Prof. in Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine – University of Peradeniya.]