Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene

AN INTRODUCTION TO GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD

PURPOSE

This paper -

  1. provides a general overview about genetically modified (GM) food, including its benefits and related public concerns; and
  2. reports on the current position in Hong Kong.

DEFINITION OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD

2. GM food is any food produced using modern biotechnology which modifies the genetic make up of living organisms.

3. Genetic modification is not something new. For thousands of years humans have sought new ways of growing and producing food. Probably without knowing the exact mechanism, farmers centuries ago interbred crops to change genes for getting better yields.

4. Modern biotechnology conducts genetic modification in a more selective and precise way. Genes controlling specific characteristics can be identified, activated, inactivated or transferred from one organism to another.

REASONS AND BENEFITS OF DEVELOPING GM FOOD

5. The global population is expected to be doubled by 2033, and it is highly likely that the growth rate of population will exceed that of food production. Researchers envisage the development of GM food will help to -

  1. increase crop yields;
  2. increase the tolerance of crops to adverse growing conditions, e.g. drought;
  3. improve crop resistance to pests and weeds and hence reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides;
  4. improve processing characteristics of crops so as to reduce wastage and costs;
  5. improve nutrient composition of crops, e.g. increase of protein content;
  6. improve sensory attributes of food, e.g. better flavour or texture;
  7. develop modified qualities as added value to consumers, e.g. inclusion of vitamins and other dietary supplements; and
  8. eliminate allergy-causing properties in some food.

GLOBAL POSITION OF GM FOOD

6. In 1998, a global total of 27.8 million hectares of land were planted with GM crops. Most of them are soybeans, corns and cotton. The product characteristics (e.g. composition, nutritional value and taste) of GM food currently available on the market are similar to their traditional counterparts, except that they bear certain advantageous properties introduced by genetic modification. Some examples are -

Advantage Introduced by Genetic Modification Common Food Products
SOYBEAN Herbicide tolerance Soy beverages, tofu, soy oil, soy flour, and as ingredients in breads, pastries and edible oil.
CORN Insect resistance
Herbicide tolerance
Corn oil, flour, sugar or syrup, and as ingredients in snacks, bakery products,confectionery and soft drinks.
TOMATO Delay softening of tissue Tomato puree and tomato juice.

CONCERNS OVER GM FOOD

7. Concerns over GM food can be broadly divided into three aspects -

  1. Food safety - is GM food safe for human consumption?
  2. Consumer information - how consumers get to know whether and to what extent has the food been genetically modified?
  3. Environmental impact - what impact, if any, does the production of GM food have on the environment?

Each of these concerns will be discussed in detail in the ensuing paragraphs.

Food Safety

8. World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have concluded that the use of modern biotechnology, including genetic modification, does not result in food becoming inherently less safe than that produced by conventional techniques. Notwithstanding this, it is generally accepted that because the use of modern biotechnology in food is a recent development, GM food should be subject to more rigorous safety assessments than their traditional counterparts. Guidelines on comprehensive safety assessment for GM food have been jointly developed by WHO and FAO in its report on Biotechnology and Food Safety.

9. Before any GM food is introduced to the market, they must go through safety assessments conducted by the industry and the regulatory agencies in its place of origin based on international guidelines. For example, in the United States (the major producer of GM food), GM food has to fully satisfy conditions laid down by three federal agencies - the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture. These assessments often take years to complete. To date, all GM food released to the market are assessed as fit for human consumption.

Consumer Information

10. Food labelling is the primary tool for consumer information. Policies for labelling of GM food differ from country to country and are still evolving. Generally speaking, there are two schools of thoughts on GM food labeling -

  1. One school interprets the purpose of food labelling as informing consumers about the characteristics of the food product which include quantity, quality (e.g. composition, nutritional value), potential adverse health impact (e.g. toxicology, allergen), etc. Hence, labelling of GM food is only required when the food is not substantially equivalent to its conventional counterpart in any of its product characteristics. This approach is currently adopted by Canada and the United States.
  2. The other school suggests that food labelling should not be restricted to product characteristics, but be extended to production and processing means as well. Since some people are concerned about ethical, social or environmental issues surrounding the production process of GM food, consumers should have the "right to know" about whether their food has undergone genetic modification. Hence, all GM food should be labelled regardless of their equivalence in product characteristics to their traditional counterparts. This approach is currently adopted by many European countries.

Environmental Impact

11. This is the key concern of environmental groups. They fear that genetic modification will bring about irreversible damage to the environment. Their major fears include -

  1. unintended modification of similar species in the neighboring fields due to cross-pollination;
  2. development of super pests and super weeds;
  3. disturbing the balance of the ecosystem; and
  4. damaging biodiversity.

12. On the other hand, advocates of GM products believe that GM crops can contribute to environmental protection if not more so than their traditional counterparts. Some GM crops lower the need for use of pesticides, others encourage good agricultural practices which contribute to land conservation and biodiversity protection. They argue that the issue of environmental impact has already been fully addressed on a product-by-product basis since environmental evaluation is a crucial element in the risk assessment conducted by regulatory agencies when approving the introduction of GM products. For example, in the United States, environmental impact assessment and agricultural product safety assessment have to be conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture during the field-test stage, before the commercialization of genetically modified seeds.

13. To address the environmental concerns generated from production of GM products, a Biosafety Protocol was agreed in February 2000 by 135 member countries under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Protocol mainly aims at regulating the transboundary movement of living modified organisms (e.g. live fish, seeds and animals) to protect bio-diversity. Although the Convention on Biological Diversity has not yet been extended to Hong Kong, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is actively studying the possibility and implications of implementing the Protocol in Hong Kong.

Other Concerns

14. Some people have raised other concerns due to religious, social, ethical and other reasons, such as -

  1. whether it is acceptable to move genes between plants or animals which do not normally interbreed; and
  2. not knowing whether the food they have taken contains genes from something they would not normally eat for religious or other reasons.

POSITION IN HONG KONG

15. At present, we do not have a legislative and regulatory regime specifically targeted at GM food in Hong Kong yet. GM food, like any other food, is subject to the general regulatory framework on food safety set out in the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132). Under Cap. 132, all food intended for sale must be fit for human consumption.

16. On 5 January 2000, at a Legislative Council motion debate on GM food, the Administration undertook to strengthen public education on GM food, study overseas experience in GM food regulation and consider the feasibility of setting up a GM food labelling system in Hong Kong. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department set up a Task Force to examine the issues involved. The following paragraphs report on the work being carried out in this regard.

Public Education

17. To provide the community with comprehensive and accurate information on GM food, a public education programme was launched in mid-March 2000. As a start, we have -

  1. uploaded detailed information on GM food onto the homepage of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) on the Internet (Members can browse at http://info.gov.hk/fehd/safefood/gmf/index1c.html);
  2. distributed information leaflets on GM Food to the public (copies of leaflets to be tabled);
  3. recorded information on GM food on FEHD's information hotline; and
  4. contributed articles for publication in local newspapers.

Public Consultation

18. To promote public awareness and participation in the formulation of GM food policy, FEHD has organized two public forums. These forums seek -

  1. to enable the public to have a more comprehensive understanding about GM food; and
  2. to involve all stakeholders i.e. professionals, the food trade, environmental groups and the consumers and facilitate the exchange of information and views on GM food safety and labeling; and
  3. to gather public opinion on an appropriate regulatory framework for GM food.

19. The first public forum was held on 31 March 2000, with main discussions focusing on GM food safety. The second one to be held on 4 May 2000 would be devoted to GM food labelling. A brief report on the first forum is at Annex. A verbal report on the second forum will be made at the meeting. In addition, we will discuss with interest parties including the food trade.

Overseas Experience

20. As a new development in food industry, GM food poses challenges for Government and regulatory agencies around the world. We have been studying the regulatory models adopted or being developed by overseas countries and will submit a paper for Members' information at the next meeting.

21. There are two significant findings from our research on international experience -

  1. while regulation of GM food is generally accepted to be needed, the approach and measures taken differ from country to country and are still evolving; and
  2. there is at present no international consensus on regulation of GM food. An Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology was formed in 1999 under the Codex Alimentarius Commission1 to set international standards and guidelines on regulation of GM food. However, the results are not expected to be available until 2003.

Hence, we will continue to monitor developments internationally and take them into account in formulating our policy.

WAY FORWARD

22. We will assess the feasibility of adopting various regulatory measures including a labeling system in Hong Kong. We will seek Member's advice on the broad direction for regulation of GM food later this year following which we will consult the trade and the public.

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department

5 May 2000




The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a commission under the United Nations responsible for setting food standards. It is recognized by the WHO, the FAO and the World Trade Organization as the international authority for food standards.

 

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