September 2003 Edition
Healthcare: Genetic Modification

by Angie Wig

For centuries, humans have been breeding animals, plants and microorganisms in order to improve characteristics such as yield, disease resistance, appearance, and processing attributes. Traditional forms of breeding involve mating a male and a female to produce offspring with the desired traits.

The problem with conventional breeding is that it is not always predictable or successful, and can be very time-consuming. It is also not possible to cross the species barrier with these methods. For example, desirable traits of oranges, such as high vitamin C content, cannot be transferred to apples.

In recent years, new techniques have been developed for directly manipulating the genetic material of organisms. This manipulation is known as genetic modification. Genetic engineering is a common form of genetic modification involving the introduction of a gene or genes from one species into another unrelated species. This technology allows scientists to identify the specific genes responsible for desirable traits in one species or type of organism, and then transfer these genes to a different organism. The recipient organism then acquires these traits. Genetic modification allows food developers to add or enhance useful traits or remove undesirable traits, much more quickly and precisely than traditional breeding methods.

Currently the primary applications of genetic modification in the food industry are to produce crops with insect protection, herbicide tolerance, and disease resistance characteristics. The benefits include longer lasting and better tasting fruits and vegetables, less use of pesticides, and higher crop yields. In general, genetic modification has the potential to make food production more efficient, and may contribute to enhancing the global food supply. Scientists are also developing plant and animal products that will have improved nutritional quality.

Health Canada is responsible for ensuring that all foods, including those derived from genetic modification, are safe prior to entering the Canadian food system. A thorough safety assessment is performed on every genetically modified food to demonstrate that the food is safe and nutritious before it is allowed into the marketplace. The safety assessment includes the following considerations:

    • how the food crop was developed;
    • composition of the food compared to non-modified counterpart foods;
    • nutritional information compared to non-modified counterparts;
    • potential for introducing new toxins; and
    • potential for causing allergic reactions.

The techniques of genetic modification do not introduce risks that are different from those already associated with the food supply. Many of the issues raised by genetically modified foods are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means. Potential hazards are those associated with toxic or allergenic compounds that are already inherently present in the food supply.

After nine years of thorough safety assessments, Health Canada states that there is no published scientific evidence demonstrating that genetically modified foods are any less safe than traditional ones. Currently there is no indication that longer-term studies are needed, as the potential for long-term effects of these foods are no different than that for conventional foods that have safely been part of the Canadian diet for many years.

Should developments in the technology result in modifications that provide significantly different nutrient combinations or other novel food characteristics not previously encountered in the food supply, such foods may require additional considerations to address long-term health effects. At this time, no products representing such true novelty to the food supply have been proposed for commercialisation.

Health Canada’s approach to the safety assessment of genetically modified foods is currently being used by regulatory agencies around the world in countries such as the European Union member states, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States.

With regard to labelling requirements, food products derived from genetic modification that are demonstrated to be safe and nutritious, are treated the same as non-genetically modified foods. For all foods, special labelling is required where health and safety issues exist that might be controlled through labelling, such as identifying the presence of an allergen. Labelling is also required to identify compositional or nutritional changes. In these situations, labelling is required to alert consumers or susceptible groups in the population. For example, where the composition of a product has been intentionally modified a different common name will be required to describe the food. ยจ

Sources:

Health Canada web site, www.hc-sc.gc.ca

Dietitians of Canada. Modern Food Biotechnology: Principles and Perspectives. 2002