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Restrictions or outright bans on the production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) exist in many countries worldwide. Yet Malaysia has approved eight genetically modified (GM) maize/corn products and six GM soybean products for food, feed and processing purposes.

Besides these, approvals have also been given for the field trials of GM mosquitoes, papaya, and release of GM products for use as pesticides and fertilisers. Most Malaysians are unaware of these approvals.

These approvals have been issued by the Department of Biosafety in the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry under the National Biosafety Act 2007. The approved GM products for food, feed and processing have different traits, namely insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance.

However, these seemingly innocuous uses hide a multitude of risks that have not been addressed by the authorities adequately in spite of concerns and opposition raised by civil society groups including the Consumers’ Association of Penang, which have cited supporting scientific evidence. These risks include health, environmental, social, ethical and cultural concerns.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), a US-based international association of physicians, urged an immediate moratorium on GM food in 2009 citing, “Genetically modified food... pose a serious health risk. Several animal studies indicate... infertility, immune problems, accelerated ageing, dysfunctional insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system”.

In October 2013, a statement released by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (Ensser) highlighted that there was no scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods and crops, calling claims that GM foods and crops were safe for humans, animals and the environment “misleading”. The statement has since been signed by more than 300 scientists and published in the journal, Environmental Sciences Europe.

The statement made several conclusions:

1) There is no consensus on GM food safety. Claims that GM foods are safe for human health based on the experience of North American populations who consume large amounts of GM food daily have no scientific basis because GM foods are not labelled in North America and therefore, it is impossible to trace or study their health impacts.

2) Claims that several hundred studies have found GM food safe were found to be false and irresponsible. In fact, some of the cited studies showed evidence of toxic effects.

3) Claims that scientific and governmental bodies endorse GMO safety are exaggerated or inaccurate.

4) There is no consensus on the environmental risks of GM crops.

Exercise precautionary principle

At the international level, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the UN’s Codex Alimentarius acknowledge widespread recognition of the risks posed by GM foods and crops. As party to the Cartagena Protocol, Malaysia should exercise the precautionary principle with respect to GMOs, which is provided for in this agreement and which is also the basis of the National Biosafety Act 2007.

This means that in view of the scientific uncertainties and lack of adequate means of risk assessment and monitoring of GMOs, the government should not approve any GMOs for field-testing or release, and withdraw all existing approvals of GMOs.

What makes the situation even more imperative is that Malaysians are in all likelihood already eating GM products imported from countries growing GM crops, such as the United States. The US is the world’s largest producer of GM crops like soy, corn and canola. Malaysia imports soybeans and corn from the US.

These end up in our food as soya and corn oil, soybean curd, soya drinks, soy sauce, corn syrup, corn starch, corn flakes, and the like. In addition, we eat the meat, milk and eggs from animals fed with GM feed.

GM Roundup Ready® (RR®) soybean made tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate (commonly called Roundup) comprises about 80 percent of global annual soy production. Recent studies have found high levels of glyphosate residues in RR® soybean from its exposure to the regular application of the herbicide during cultivation and that GM soybean feed can negatively affect animal growth, reproductive maturity and number of offspring even at levels well below permitted limits.

In March 2015, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” with “convincing evidence” of carcinogenicity in lab animals.

Thousands of unsuspecting Malaysians continue to eat GMOs on a regular basis in ignorant bliss.  It is high time that Malaysians woke up and took charge of their own fate. Malaysians can step up and exercise their rights to safe food, health and a safe environment. Consumers must demand mandatory and clear labelling of all products containing genetically engineered ingredients - without any threshold and exemptions.

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) urges an outright ban on GMOs in the country with immediate effect and prior disclosure of GMOs in any products to be imported into Malaysia.

SM MOHAMED IDRIS is president, Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP).

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