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By Gro Harlem Brundtland

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, is currently director general of the World Health Organization.

GENEVA -- Genetic manipulation of food products provokes strong emotions whenever it is discussed. So far, this discussion has mainly taken place in Europe and North America, and for too long it has been portrayed as a conflict between commercial interests and those of consumers. Trenches have been dug and positions have been cemented.

But those who argue for or against genetically modified food are being left behind by developments on the farm as well as in the laboratories. GM foods are already here, and research on genetic manipulation of food is taking place in thousands of universities and private companies -- not only in the industrialized world, but also in China, South Africa and a number of other developing nations.

Seen from a farm in Africa or China, the issues look considerably different from the perspective of Western supermarket aisles. Many poor farmers who hear that the GM seeds can increase yields, withstand drought or protect crops from insects only ask, "When can we get our hands on these new varieties?''

To take the debate out of the trenches and make it useful, the questions we must ask are: How do we ensure that the new products are both safe and beneficial for consumers? How do we ensure that these technologies will benefit the developing nations and the poorest farmers and consumers?

GM food has the potential to bring with it the largest change in food production since the green revolution of the 1960s. We may see vitamin A and iron deficiencies being drastically reduced through GM crops that are rich in such substances. That is important. Iron deficiency might affect 4-5 billion people worldwide, constituting a public health condition of epidemic proportions, while vitamin A deficiency affects between 100 and 400 million children in the world, leaving 250,000 to 500,000 blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

Adding nutrients to food products is not a new idea. Most countries in the world have added iodine to salt for decades to avoid goiter and mental disabilities that are caused by iodine deficiency. Many of the breakfast cereals and other foods on our table have vitamins added to them.

What is new is that, in this case, scientists are not adding substances -- they move genes so the plants produce their own.
Down the road, some suggest we may even see "bio-pharmaceuticals'' -- food products such as fruits that contain vaccines against diseases. In countries that struggle with low immunization rates, such products may become major lifesavers.
Yet, such claims from the inventors will not be taken at face value. The efficiency of foods to combat vitamin A deficiency and produce other positive health effects needs to be compared to other existing methods to promote health.

We may also encounter serious negative effects. If GM products are more expensive than existing ones, they may not reach the poorest. If they are not properly tested, they may have dangerous and unexpected side effects. If regulatory and norm-setting authorities do not have consumer interests as their main focus, we may see products that increase profits for large companies without giving much benefit to those who need these products.

Safety is a key issue, but we must also answer questions about whether genetically modified food is beneficial and for whom. European consumers have not been impressed by arguments that they should eat modified maize and beans because these new varieties are cheaper to produce and therefore increase profits for the farmers. They may have been more willing to listen to arguments that, since they are more resistant to insects, the new varieties need less use of insecticides and therefore are more environmentally friendly. But these arguments have been largely countered by those claiming we know too little about the ecological consequences of the gene manipulations.

A number of statements from regulators, producers and scientists involved in the area of biotechnology seem to suggest that they feel the problems originate in the consumer's incapacity to understand and scientifically compare the risk of GM foods to the risk of traditional food.

To base future deliberations upon this view could be a very serious second mistake. The first mistake has been not to involve consumers -- and other interested parties -- in the risk-analysis process. The process of a scientific assessment and the following management decisions was considered by many regulators to be too complicated for the common consumer.

We need to consider much more than safety-related issues. For instance: Do we know that GM foods with added essential nutrients will actually prevent nutritional deficiencies better than simpler methods of giving these vitamins together with vaccinations? Will the new foods be more affordable than conventional food, and would they be more accessible to the poorest? Is it acceptable in all or only in some cultures? Would the production of such new food lead to sustainable development? What are the effects of GM plants on the environment? Do such plants, for instance, result in further transfer of genes to traditional plants? All in all, the scope of any future evaluation should be broad and include safety, nutritional and environmental aspects as well as efficiency, socioeconomic and ethical considerations.

Such considerations will be developed with other World Health Organization partners, including such intergovernmental organizations as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, U.N. Environmental Program, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank and non-governmental organizations. The leaders of the G-8 have already pledged to push these issues forward. This is positive.
We must agree on standardized methodology at the international level also in this area. A regulatory framework should be in place to form pre-market evaluations -- not ad-hoc tests after the products have come on the market.

Whatever we choose to do at national or international levels we should acknowledge the consumer's right to be concerned as well as to be informed. New products should not only be safe but also beneficial for consumers and more efficient than existing products.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.

For immediate release (Distributed 8/20/01)