Testing time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 12:00am

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has set itself a tight deadline to introduce labelling for genetically modified foods, even before a United Nations' commission has established international standards for testing and labelling.

The department's decision will help allay concern about GM food. More than 6,000 people signed a Greenpeace petition this month urging authorities to speed up labelling. But as our article on page 21 today explains, setting a benchmark for testing is only the first step.

According to scientists, some products are so highly processed detection of GM ingredients is virtually impossible. That means the 'right to know' is dependent on manufacturers' willingness to co-operate. All of us have been eating GM food without being aware of it.

Even the scientific world cannot agree about possible health hazards associated with these items. If there are, the facts may not emerge until a generation from now, by which time the need to sustain a swelling global population on shrinking agricultural land will be more acute.

But health fears will mean greater caution in developing new crops and a worldwide accreditation standard to make sure that consumers are informed about the products.

GM foods may be the biggest agricultural advance since the plough. Or they may upset the balance of nature and give multinational companies a stranglehold over the developing world. That is why it is important to keep the debate alive. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has made an encouraging start.