Food safety

Release of GMOs in the environment: is it a human health hazard?

Joint WHO/EURO - ANPA Seminar, Rome, Italy, 7-9 September 2000

Introduction (from the report)

Biotechnology has been applied to foods since the beginning of the 1990s. On one hand, public health could benefit enormously from biotechnology. It would have e.g. an immense potential for devising new ways of increasing the nutrient contents of foods, decreasing allergenicity in foods, and improving the efficiency of food production. The use of the technology in foods is therefore spreading rapidly. On the other hand, great public mistrust is prevailing, as reflected in new expressions such as “Frankenstein Foods”. Many consumer groups and some scientists are claiming that foods derived from biotechnology should not be marketed. Several WHO Member States are also moving in this direction.

In order to respond to this concern, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, at its 23rd session held on 28 June-3 July 1999, established the Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology. The objective of the task force is the development of standards, guidelines or recommendations, as appropriate, for foods derived from biotechnology or traits introduced into foods by biotechnology, on the basis of scientific evidence, risk analysis and with regard, where appropriate, to other legitimate factors relevant to the health of consumers and to the promotion of fair trade practices. The first meeting of the Task Force was held in Japan in March 2000. FAO and WHO expressed their intention to organize a series of scientific expert consultation to support the work of the Task Force.

In June 2000 the First Joint FAO/WHO Consultation on Foods Derived from Biotechnology was held in Geneva. It addressed the overall safety aspects of foods derived from genetically modified plants and focused on the applicability of substantial equivalence as a general guidance for scientific risk assessment. Conclusions and recommendations of this consultation are attached in Annex 4. “Environmental safety” of Genetically Modified Plants (GMPs) and socioeconomic issues were not included in the scope of the consultations.

Responses to the concerns on the potential effects on human health of the release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), especially plants, in the environment are so far very scarce.

Therefore, a WHO/EURO seminar on “Release of Genetically Modified Organisms in the Environment: is it a Health Hazard?” was held at the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, European Centre for Environment and Health, Rome Division, on 7-9 September 2000, in collaboration with the Italian Environment Protection Agency (ANPA).