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Genetically modified food

A Genetically modified food is a food product containing some quantity of any genetically modified organism (GMO) as an ingredient.

Some nations have very strong disagreement over genetically modified organisms. For example, the European Union and Japan are willing to maintain labelling and traceability standards for GM food products, while the United States claims it violates free trade agreements.

The first commercially grown genetically modified food crop was a tomato created by Calgene[?] called the FlavrSavr[?]. Calgene submitted it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for testing in 1992; following the FDA's determination that the FlavrSavr was, in fact, a tomato, did not constitute a health hazard, and did not need to be labeled to indicate it was genetically modified, Calgene released it into the market in 1994, where it met with little public comment (largely due to public ignorance).

Subsequent genetically modified food crops included virus-resistant squash, a potato variant that included an organic pesticide called Bt (NB: the EPA classified the Bt potato as a pesticide, but required no labeling), strains of canola, soybean, corn and cotton engineered by Monsanto to be immmune to their popular herbicide RoundUp[?], and Bt corn.

There was a brief interlude where Monsanto flirted with introducing a technology called terminator into food crops, which produced plants that grew sterile seeds. Monsanto claimed this was necessary to protect their intellectual property rights, since they were licensing the technology to farmers, and would also have provided a measure of protection against volunteer corn[?] carrying unwanted traits, a major concern that arose during the Starlink debacle.

Public outcry about the undue influence that the terminator gene would give to Monsanto, particularly in less developed nations where seed saving is more common, led to its withdrawal.

Awareness grew throughout the nineties and eventually produced a strong backlash against GM foods (discussed below), which were panned as "untested", "unlabeled" and "unsafe"; following this backlash, the International Rice Research Institute[?], with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation developed a strain of rice genetically modified, claiming it to be enriched with vitamin A, dubbed golden rice. Subsequently the biotech industry touted this as a boon to poor people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness. This was condemned by GM food opponents as a ploy and a public relations move. (See golden rice for more.)

Many prominent environmental organizations, like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, currently consider the issue of the presence of GMOs in conventional food[?] products to be a major issue - indeed Greenpeace has made it a centerpiece of their activism. In 2002, opponents placed a measure on the Oregon ballot that would have made that state the first to require labelling of GMO food.

Between 1996 and 2002, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs has increased by a factor of thirty. Land producing GMO crops grew from 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) in 1996 to 52 million hectares (128 million acres) in 2001. Soybean crop represented 63% of total surface in 2001, maize 19%, cotton 13% and canola 5%.

Four countries represent 99% of total GM surface in 2001: United States (68%), Argentina (22%), Canada (6%) and China (3%). It is estimated that 70% of products on U.S. grocery shelves include GM products. In particular, Bt corn is widely grown, as are soybeans genetically designed to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

The US Agriculture Department estimated that 38 percent of the 79 million acres of corn planted in 2003 will be genetically engineered varieties as well as 80% of the 73.2 million acres soybeans.

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Genetically modified food in Europe

In Europe, a series of unrelated food crises[?] during the 1990s (e.g. the BSE (or 'mad cow' disease) outbreaks and foot and mouth disease) have created consumer apprehension about food safety in general, and eroded the public trust in government oversight of the food industry. This has further fueled widespread public concern about GMOs, in terms of environmental protection (in particular biodiversity), health and safety of consumers and the right to make an informed choice. The apprehension might also be due to the perceived novelty of GM foods, as well as cultural factors relating to food. The mishandling of the BSE crisis has left some consumers unwilling to consider "science" to be a guarantee of quality.

Although some claim genetically modified foods may even be safer than conventional[?] products, many European consumers are nevertheless demanding that their "right to know" the content and origin of the food they consume be respected.

However, as a result of the high quantity of GMO crops, the adventitious presence of GM in imported food products (shipments of grain for food, feed and processing for example), is now thought inevitable and largely unavoidable, and usually not mentioned.

In a context of local food surplus where current GM food has little added nutritional value, the European consumer is wondering why any risk should be taken.

For these reasons, the marketing of GM food is regulated in a manner that helps to provide the necessary levels of safety, transparency and reassurance. At the beginning of the 2000's, European officials insisted that new regulations were needed to "restore consumer confidence" in the technology. These new regulations required strict labelling and traceability of all food and animal feed[?] containing more than 0.5 percent GM ingredients. Directives, such as directive 2001/18/EC, were designed to require authorisation for the placing on the market of GMO, in accordance with the precautionary principle. (see also Tax, tariff and trade).

One of the features of the European system is a comprehensive pre-market risk assessment[?], a system trying to provide means for products to be followed at each stage of their production and distribution, by both transmission of accurate information and labelling. This traceability is a means to implement post-market measures such as monitoring[?] and withdrawals[?] (recalls).
This system is not only limited to GMO products but should encompass any food product[?] ultimately.

In GMO products, traceability is usually limited to products where transformed DNA and/or transformed protein are detectable, not to products that have been produced from GMOs but no longer appears to contain modified DNA and/or proteins. Officials stress that while traceability facilitates the implementation of safety measures, where appropriate, it cannot and should not be considered as a safety measure.

In 1999, a 4 year ban was pronounced on new genetically modified crops. At the end of 2002, European Union environment ministers agreed new controls on GMOs could eventually lead the 15-member bloc to reopen its markets to GM foods. European Union ministers agreed to new labelling controls for genetically modified goods which will have to carry a special harmless DNA sequence (a DNA code bar[?]) identifying the origin of the crops, making it easier for regulators to spot contaminated crops, feed, or food, and enabling products to be withdrawn from the food chain should problems arise. A series of additional sequences of DNA with encrypted information about the company or what was done to the product could also be added to provide more data. (see Mandatory labelling).

See Trade war over genetically modified food for more details on disputes and more recent developments between the United States and the EU arising from EU position on genetically modified organisms.

Japan and GM food

Japan like Europe maintains labelling standards for GM food products. Japanese demand and assistance has led to a small effort to set up separate processing facility for non-GM soybeans in the U.S.

Poor nations and GM food

China is currently a heavy producer of GM cotton. However, in 2002, the country introduced biosafety rules that demanded strict labelling[?], extensive documentation and government approval for food shipments. Under this new rules, all soybean shipments from Midwestern U.S. states were stopped in 2002.

Poor nations agriculture officials are receiving training courses on GMO at the American Agriculture Department, with instruction in the WTO rules on GM products and benefits of biotechnology.
U.S. industry groups are also providing "technical assistance" to fund initiatives that promote "science-based and transparent biotechnology regulations" in countries such as China.

See also Biosafety Protocol, conventional food[?], organic food, pre-market risk assessment[?], food monitoring[?], food withdrawal[?], Tax, tariff and trade

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