Sécurité sanitaire et qualité des aliments

Biotechnology, GMO and GM foods

Biotechnology has been used in food production and processing for thousands of years. The food sources available to early humans, both plant and animal, had evolved through natural selection. Genetic diversity arising from spontaneous genetic changes, including recombination, mutation and reproductive isolation, was exploited when the early farmers began to save the seeds from their best crops for later sowings and to use the best animals for breeding.

Today, it allows producers to obtain specific traits in a controlled manner, making it possible to grow new plants and animals and thus create desirable food products. The application of "modern biotechnology" to food production has shown great potential to provide powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as the food industry.

Among various types of modern biotechnology, the term "genetically modified organisms (GMOs)" has gained a special attention since 1990's. It mainly uses various laboratory techniques in the recombinant-DNA (rDNA) technology, which comprises altering genetic material outside an organism (transgene) to obtain enhanced and desired characteristics in living organisms or as their product. This technology involves insertion of DNA fragments from a variety sources.

While the technology has presented new opportunities and potential benefits for food security with specific traits such as drought-resistance and flood-tolerance, it has also raised consumer concerns due to the novelty of the technology. Various questions were pondered: including the ones on seed monopolization, biodiversity related risks, consumption risks to human, horizontal gene transfers in the environment, the effect on pesticide resistance, consumer choices, sustainability and socio-economic issues such as ethical issues. Among them, one of the most pressing issues has been the issues around food safety. Thus, it is important for food safety competent authorities to assure safety of foods derived from modern biotechnology, and to provide scientific, evidence-based and accurate information about GM food safety.

FAO's work on GM food safety

FAO provides its Members with sound and neutral advice on the safety of GM foods. From 1999 to 2008, FAO and WHO have provided scientific basis to conduct GM food safety assessment to the Codex Alimentarius Commission. As a results, a series of Codex texts has been developed through the Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Food Derived from Biotechnology (TFFBT).

FAO hosts an international official database, FAO GM Foods Platform, which is a simple online platform to share information on safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants authorized in accordance with the Codex Guideline for the conduct of food safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants (CAC/GL 45-2003, annex III adopted in 2008). This Platform also facilitates the effective utilization of food safety assessment in situations of Low Level Presence (LLP) of r-DNA plant materials in food.

Upon requests and based on the resource availability, FAO provides training for the government authorities to conduct food safety assessment of GM foods, based on the FAO training tool, GM food safety assessment tools for trainers (FAO, 2008).


Information toolkit on food biotechnologies with a focus on food safety (FAO, 2021)

A number of questions and concerns about food biotechnologies have been raised, and governments are expected to address them in an effective and timely manner. However, providing science-based but easy-to-digest answers requires a certain level of understanding of the subject and good communication skill sets, therefore preparedness is key.

This information toolkit on food biotechnologies with a focus on food safety serves as a basis to assist countries in addressing the general public’s concerns on food biotechnology and food safety, to support them in raising awareness of the science of food biotechnologies and food safety and to inform discussions and decisions. It consists of one handbook providing an instruction manual for the whole set of documents and ten booklets, referred to as tools, and which cover background information, general information on the scientific aspects of food biotechnologies and food safety, the rationale behind the claimed benefits of genetically modified (GM) foods, GM food safety assessments and regulations. The tools also touch upon aspects related to human health and the environment, the practical uses and applications, the recent developments and innovations, possibilities to engage with the public.

GM food safety assessment tools for trainers (FAO, 2008): The training package, GM food safety assessment tools for trainers, also available in French and Spanish, is composed of three parts. The first part, Principles of safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants, provides guidance for the implementation of an effective framework for safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants. The second part, Tools and techniques for trainers, offers a practical guide for preparing and delivering a workshop on the topic of safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants. This section contains various checklists and forms, a sample workshop agenda, sample workshop evaluation sheet, and five useful presentation modules for trainers. The third part, Case studies, presents three safety assessment dossiers that have been summarized for training purposes. After the completion of training based on this tool, recipients will be able to plan and deliver GM food safety assessment r=training for food safety authorities, regulators and scientists as part of their own national training programmes. The tool is available in English, French and Spanish.

Global community meeting of the FAO GM Foods Platform (FAO, 2019): The FAO GM Foods Platform is an online community of practice to share knowledge, experience and information on the safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants.

The global community meeting was held from 10 to 13 September 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand, providing an opportunity for community members to establish contacts and networks so that national regulatory good practices and lessons-learnt in the food safety assessment process can be shared.

The overall goal was to strengthen the capacities and understanding of less experienced countries with regard to GM food safety assessments at the national level.

FAO GM Foods Platform: Are we effectively evaluating food safety? (FAO, 2020): As of September 2019, 172 Codex Members out of 189 (91 percent) officially designated national focal points to the Platform to participate, however, only 28 percent have been able to share the results of their own GM food safety assessments. Most of the remaining Members still struggle to conduct the assessment, mainly due to technical and institutional capacity and/ or situational issues.

This document aims to assist such focal points, particularly those in developing nations, as the document illustrates various Platform community members’ situations regarding the required knowledge and expertise, desired institutional set-ups, and effective communication mechanism.