Proponents of genetic engineering argue that GMOs represent the only viable solution to food shortages in an ever-growing global population. They claim that the use of GMOs in agriculture and their consumption have caused no harm to livestock or humans so far. Heated debate also persists over GMO food labelling, with food manufacturers in the USA arguing that mandatory GMO labelling hinders the development of agricultural biotechnology, and may also "exacerbate the misconception” that GMOs endanger human health.
However, opponents of GMOs are far from convinced, and they are concerned about the potentially negative impact of GMOs on the environment, livestock and humans. The inevitability of GMO-contamination to some level has been widely recognised in non-GMO producing countries, but many countries, including EU countries, seek to control its spread. Opponents of GMOs are also concerned about the lack of data on the long-term effects of GMO use. These concerns have been effective in limiting GMO acceptance by the public.
Our guest blogger, Dr Tatjana Brankov of University of Novi Sad, Serbia, in her opinion piece below, describes how GMOs find their way to the daily diet of livestock, and subsequently to human diet, in different geographical regions of the world, including non-GMO producing countries.
To find out what this means for customers who want to avoid GMOs in their diet, or to farmers who want to keep their farms GMO-free, read on…
How Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) enter the food chain in non-GMO producing countries
A superficial review of the legislation on transgenic foods and feeds indicates that consumers in non-GMO producing countries consume GMO-free food. However, less attention is paid to the fact that GMOs can enter the food chain through the import of transgenic foodstuff and feedstuff or by contamination.
In some countries, transgenic food production is fully equal to conventional production. The concept of substantial equivalence, developed by the OECD and further elaborated by FAO/WHO “embodies the concept that if a new food or food component is found to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component, it can be treated in the same manner with respect to safety, i.e. the food or food component can be concluded to be as safe as the conventional food or food component” (FAO/WHO 1996). Such a situation exists in a number of countries, including the USA, where it has been estimated that up to 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves, from soda to soup, and from crackers to condiments contain GMO ingredients (Center for Food Safety 2017).
On the other side, EU countries apply the precautionary principle as a guiding approach for trans-border movement of GMOs (Myhr and Traavik, 2002). As the EUR-Lex glossary explains, this principle “relates to an approach to risk management whereby, if there is the possibility that a given policy or action might cause harm to the public or the environment and if there is still no scientific consensus on the issue, the policy or action in question should not be pursued.”
GMO cultivation in the EU is very limited because of concerns expressed by stakeholders about adverse effects on the environment, farmlands, and biodiversity. Only four countries in the EU (out of 28) - Spain, Portugal, Slovakia and Czech Republic - plant single transgenic crop, IR maize event MON 810 on 136,363 hectares (James, 2016). According to the safeguard clause of Directive 2001/18/EC, EU member countries may restrict or totally ban GMO cultivation in their territories. This possibility is used by 19 EU countries that have “opted out” of GMO crops within all or part of their territories (Eco Watch, 2015).
Labelling regulations for food and feed products are presented in Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003. According to this regulation, all products containing traces of authorized GMO ingredients in a proportion higher than 0.9 percent should be labelled. The EU is not an exporter of GMOs, but imports large quantities of transgenic soybean and corn, which are mainly used as feedstuffs (GAIN, 2016). Under such legal regime, the EU “has accepted the inevitability of GMO-contamination to some level, and only seeks to control it” (Paul and Steinbrecher, 2003).
Other countries have prohibited GMO cultivation, but tolerate transgenic import. For example, Russia has one of the most restrictive GMO laws in the world (de jure prohibition of cultivation). However, Russian citizens consume meat or milk that comes from livestock fed GMOs. Such an ambivalent situation is present because Russia, as a member of the WTO, cannot completely prohibit the import and marketing of GMOs, but it also needs to import feeds for its growing livestock sector. Therefore, Russia imports soybean and corn from GMO producing countries and consequently feeds its livestock with transgenic feeds, which means that Russian citizens eat meat and meat products, as well as milk and milk products originating from livestock fed GMOs.
When these findings are transferred to everyday life issues in countries such as Serbia and its neighbouring countries, for example, the first answer to the question “Is cured ham from Njegusi, Montenegro, a non-GMO food?” will be “Yes, it probably is!” because Montenegro is a non-GMO producing country. However, FAO statistics shows that Montenegro imported 19,499 tonnes of pig and pork meat in 2013 from the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Austria - countries that import transgenic feedstuffs. In the same year, indigenous pork production in Montenegro was 2,511 tonnes. This raises serious concern that the protected brand, the prosciutto of Njegusi, may actually be produced largely from imported meat. Thus, the answer to the question “Is cured ham from Njegusi a non-GMO food?” could be “No, it probably isn’t!”
The next scenario exists in countries that have been portrayed as “bastions” of defense against GMOs, such as Serbia, which is not a WTO member. Serbia strictly prohibits production, commercialization and importation of transgenic crops and products. However, GMOs have found at least two ways to enter the food chain in Serbia as well as other countries with similar national policies on transgenics, such as Algeria (GAIN 2016a).
Firstly, GMOs enter Serbia through contamination. A controversy over GM foods in Serbia first arose in 2001, when it was discovered that 50.000 tonnes of GM soybeans, imported as food aid, contained GMOs (Paul and Steinbrecher, 2003). As a consequence, the state government refused the US aid of whole soybeans and corn on two occasions (Brankov, 2013; GMOSrbija, 2017).
Smuggled GM seeds still cross Serbian border – with the territory of Kosovo and Metohija (which receives large amounts of US food aid) being one of the main sources of uncontrolled GM imports (Brankov and Lovre, 2013).
Another important source of illegal entry of GMOs into Serbia was most probably Romania (Papic, 2008). Romania started its
transgenic soybean production in 1999, well before any EU regulation was in place. After five years it was ranked the 11th biggest GM crop growing country in the world (Anghel and Popovici, 2008). At the time, it was well known that Romania (and Bulgaria) would not enter EU until 2007 and because of that these two countries were not protected by EU regulation from “corporate excesses,” unlike Poland and Hungary who entered the EU earlier (Paul and Steinbrecher, 2003). The Yugoslav authorities at that time openly admitted that they were unable to prevent cross-border smuggling (Paul and Steinbrecher, 2003). Furthermore, hundreds of hectares of illegally planted transgenic crops are discovered in Serbia each year (Greenpeace and GeneWatch UK, 2005; Sevarlic, 2014; Agronews 2015; Agroklub 2016). Traces of transgenic soy have also been found in retail markets, even in health food stores (Taski-Ajdukovic et al., 2008; Nikolic et al., 2009; Miljus-Djukic et al., 2010; Zdjelar et al., 2013).
Another way for GMO ingredients to enter Serbia is through processed foods in which GMOs are present in extremely low amounts and are not subject of labelling. This includes almost all processed foods such as margarine, cookies, vegetable stocks in cartons, breakfast cereals, noodles, soups, sausages, beverages, fried snacks, chocolate, mayonnaise, etc.
The aforementioned Algeria, also a non-WTO member, by decree in 2000, prohibits importation, production, distribution, and commercialization as well as utilization of GM plant materials (GAIN, 2016a). Despite that, recent study has shown GMO presence in 29 samples of foodstuffs, imported from Latin America, Asia and the US (Meriem et al., 2017).
All the different pathways of GMOs entering the food chain have greatly expanded the range of transgenic components in the daily diet. It is generally agreed that the risks associated with each new GMO require an integrated and stepwise case-by-case approach (FAO 1999). This applies to any consumer who wants to avoid GMOs in their diet - consumers must evaluate each food item on a case-by-case basis when selecting their own diet. This is especially true for processed foods. In the case of prosciutto for example, it means that a consumer can be sure to consume non-GMO product only if animal feeds are produced on the farm, or if they buy finished products with a non-GMO label that guarantees both non-GMO production and processing. As a rule, such products are most likely to come from small-scale production.
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