The benefits of genetically modified agriculture need to be examined in the context of potential risks to human health, biodiversity and the environment, Jacques Diouf, director-general of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in Beijing Thursday.
Governments and populations should have access to information they need to make decisions and to put controls and protection systems in place, Diouf said.
The FAO director general made his remarks at the 27th FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, while highlighting the main challenges Asian-Pacific countries will face. The event closes today.
While genetically modified agriculture has swept parts of the world, the practice still remains controversial in China and internationally.
"Biotechnology is being increasingly applied in some countries to improve productivity and the quality of agricultural produce, and we have not seen any record of negative impact of genetically modified food on human health so far," he said.
Although modified foods have been at the dining tables of ordinary Chinese for some time, some consumers hesitate to buy such products out of perceived safety concerns.
According to a survey conducted by environmental group Green Peace in February, a random sample of 600 consumers in major Chinese cities - including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou - found that 34 percent of those surveyed tended to refuse to eat such foods and 70 percent said they believe some foods contained genetically modified components not identified.
Because of pressure from consumers to resist modified wheat in international grain markets, the US-based Monsanto Corporation declared 10 days ago that its research and development of such wheat as well as related commercial activities would be indefinitely postponed, the Washington Post reported.
However, other experts are more optimistic about the promotion of GM food.
Luo Yunfa, a researcher the with Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science, is certain about the good safety record of such foods, saying since the first day they were put onto the market in 1996, there have been no reports about health problems or medical disputes resulting from them.
"All GM food in China or other countries will be subject to rigorous pre-marketing assessment and safety management, and there is little possibility for health problems," Luo said.
Such foods may be "greener" than ordinary food, with crops showing improved capability to resist diseases and thereby needing less chemical fertilizers and pesticides, said Luo Yunbo, a professor with the Food Science and Nutrition Project College of China Agricultural University.
On Wednesday, the European Union lifted a 5-year-old ban on bio-modified foods. The EU's executive body, the European Commission, allowed the sale of modified sweet corn across the 25-member bloc, which analysts said is somewhat of a concession to the promotion of modified foods despite European consumers saying in surveys they are overwhelmingly opposed to biotech foods.
In China, as of May 1, all the edible oils on the market must be labeled as to whether they contain modified sources.
Beans and peanuts used to produce edible oils must also be identified.
The move aims to safeguard consumers' rights to know and to select, said Ren Zhengxiao, vice-director of State Administration of Grains.
(China Daily May 21, 2004)