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Labeling issues of Genetically Modified Food

4 February 2014 No Comment by naftab

Living organisms, from viruses to humans, contain a unique set of instruction (genome) made up of DNA & proteins. The instruction which set down the ways these organisms develop, grow and live are called genes found on the DNA molecules. Simple organisms like bacteria have few thousand genes, however higher organism may have many more genes e.g., the maize have around 50,000 genes in its genome.

Genetic Engineering or recombinant DNA technology is a set of techniques to cut and remove the DNA containing desired gene(s) and to be inserted into the genetic make up of another organism. The living organisms made up of altered DNA are called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). GMOs and their products have potential benefits, e.g., Genetically Modified (GM) animals may have increased resistance against diseases, enhanced productivity and improved food or feed efficiency, resulting in better yield of meat, eggs and milk. Transgenic plants have been developed by inserting genes from various organisms to enhance specific characteristics like increased resistance to diseases and pests to increase yield ultimately. Fruits and vegetables are modified for long term storage or delayed ripening to increase the shelf life, to remain fresh for a longer period of time; this would also be useful for their transportation to the market in the farm fresh condition. Genetic modifications also have many applications in medicine, pharmaceutical (e.g. development of vaccine for hepatitis, antanemia drug and erythropoietin) and environment (pollution abating techniques using genetically modified microbes etc).

The use of genetic modification in food and agriculture is beneficial as well as controversial. It is very difficult to say that whether GM food is safe for health or not, for example people are consuming GM food since 1990s in USA, however many people in European countries are not even willing to accept GM food because of fear of health risks and other ethical concerns. Many people consider the food products prepared from GMOs are unnatural. Many consumers have foods containing GMOs in their home without even knowing this. Corn and soybeans are genetically modified and used as main food item in many parts of the world and many food products are derived from them.

It is most ironical situation that consumers cannot differentiate between GM food from non GM food since both look alike, may have same taste unless it is mentioned on the label or package of the foods. The labeling movement took off in the beginning of 21st century, when consumers became more aware about GMOs presence especially in food items. GMO labeling gives consumers a choice between GM and non GM and had no bearing on the safety aspect of GMOs. Responding to the pressure exerted by consumers a number of countries have adopted labeling policies for GM food. European Union introduced mandatory labeling policies in 1997 and became pioneer in this aspect. The policy binds the companies to indicate whether food items contains GMOs or not and also to mention the percentage of the GM content of the package. On the contrary the GM labeling policy of United States is purely voluntary and not regulated by any governmental body or organization.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USA has said it is not necessary to label food containing products of genetic engineering, however many public groups are against this view and argue that the best option is if more information about food origin made available for the consumers. Any food with more than 1% GMO must be labeled in Europe and Saudi Arabia, but in Australia, Japan and New Zealand labeling is required if food is containing more than 5% GM content.

Many developed countries have adopted some type of labeling policies for GM food, however, only few developing countries have adopted some labeling policies and fewer have implemented in true spirit.

In Pakistan for regulating GMOs the Federal Government notified Pakistan Biosafety Rules 2005. These rules are thus providing necessary safeguard against the undesirable impacts associated with the import, export, handling, storage, use, production and release of GMOs. National Biosafety Guidelines were also notified in October 2005 which provides the procedures for the implementation of Pakistan Biosafety Rules, 2005. National Biosafety Guidelines provides procedures for the research and development on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their products; release of GMOs and products for field trial and release of GMOs for commercial purposes.

National Biosafety Centre has been established at Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency in the year 2006 serving as the secretariat of the Committees, i.e National Biosafety Committee (NBC), Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The Centre is coordinating the activities for proper implementation of Biosafety Rules, 2005 in the country.

The mandatory labeling regulation in developed countries have failed, they had contributed to the disappearance of the GM ingredients in food products. There is a general lack of evidence on the effects of GM food labeling requirements in developing countries. Most of these countries have not fully implemented their national biosafety regulations and these countries including Pakistan working to develop policies and procedures for labeling of such GM food items.

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