Genetically modified foods can cause unintended changes: ICMR

In the absence of long-term studies to ascertain health impacts, countries are following precautionary principle to regulate genetically modified foods

Genetically modified processed food
Genetically modified foods can act as a toxin or induce allergic reactions due to cross-reaction with other allergens or from new unknown GM protein. Credit: Vikas Choudhary Genetically modified foods can act as a toxin or induce allergic reactions due to cross-reaction with other allergens or from new unknown GM protein. Credit: Vikas Choudhary

Genetically Modified (GM) foods are new and novel, and scientists are yet to fully understand their impact on human health. Several studies, however, indicate a possible problem. A study published in the August 2018 issue of International Immunopharmacology, says Bt protein, found in Bt crops, can lead to immune reaction and trigger food allergy and intestinal inflammation in mice.

In the absence of long-term studies to ascertain specific health implications of genetically modified food, the Codex Alimentarius, a body established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization, to regulate global trade in food, has come out with guidelines relating to risk assessment of genetically modified foods. The guidelines show genetically modified foods can act as a toxin or induce allergic reactions due to cross-reaction with other allergens or from new unknown genetically modified proteins. A crop’s nutritional content may get altered during the insertion of GM DNA into its genome.

A more severe outcome can be unintended escape of the inserted gene into body cells or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. If the inserted gene is resistant to a class of antibiotics, it can push humanity to the pre-antibiotic era where a mild flu would result in death. Even H P S Sachdev, a paediatrician and nutritionist in Delhi who has written in favour of GM golden rice as a solution to malnutrition in World Development in 2008, says, “Until and unless genetically modified crops have been tested on adults and their safety has been proven beyond doubt, infants must be kept away from those.”

What’s a GMO
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are those plants, animals or microorganisms, in which the genetic material (deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA) is altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or through natural recombination. They are produced using genetic engineering technology, also known as recombinant DNA technology, in which scientists transfer select genes from one organism into another of the same species or a non-related species so that the recipient acquires a desired trait. So far, the major use of the technology has been to make crops resistant to pest attacks, improve their tolerance to herbicides and to increase their nutritional content. For instance, scientists have developed Bt variants of cotton, corn and soyabean by inserting the gene of a bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into the plants’ original genetic material. BT gene expresses codes for Bt toxin protein, which when ingested by bollworm insects attacks their gut cells and kills them. Similarly, scientists have developed herbicide-tolerant (Ht) corn, soyabean, cotton and rapeseed by modifying the gene that produces the enzyme EPSPS (5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase) in plants. The enzyme produced by the modified gene does not get degraded by herbicides like glyphosate and glufosinate, and therefore does not harm the plant. While there is no clear evidence of these claimed benefits outside confined laboratories, studies do indicate their impact on human health.

The jury is out there

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety suggests countries follow the precautionary principle to limit the use and release of GMOs in situations of scientific uncertainty with regard to potentially adverse ecological and health effects. “Since various GMOs have different genes which are inserted in multiple ways, countries must evaluate the safety of genetically modified foods taking into account different populations and geographies,” suggests WHO. Data with the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit promoting the use of biotechnology in crops, shows at least 30 genetically modified crops have so far been developed worldwide.

Some 24 countries have given approvals for commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops for consumption either as food, fodder and for other commercial purposes. Forty-three countries allow only import of genetically modified foods. Typically, these countries have put in place safety mechanisms for approval of genetically modified food products before they are imported and labelling regulations for informed consumer choice. Based on the Codex Alimentarius guidelines, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in 2008 (updated in 2012) issued guidelines for determining safety of such food, as it cautioned that “there is a possibility of introducing unintended changes, along with intended changes which may in turn have an impact on the nutritional status or health of the consumer”. But these “Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Foods derived from Genetically Engineered Plants” are of use only when FSSAI comes up with a regulation for genetically modified foods.

“We are in the process of forming the regulation. The draft GM food regulation will be out soon and the law in another few months,” Pawan Agarwal, chief executive officer of FSSAI, told Down To Earth. So far, it has come up with draft regulations only for labelling of genetically modified food products.

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